Frankie Cosmos’s songs are like snippets from the internal monologue of the female lead in a particularly good indie coming-of-age film. Articulate, emotionally literate, but somewhat emotionally confused, frontwoman Greta Kline’s songs distil the awkward, tender moments that come when you’re trying to navigate multiple transitions at once, from adolescence to adulthood, infatuation to romance, romance to indifference, dependence to independence, and back again. Her skill is to present her feelings and experiences in an honest state of disarray and vulnerability, and to offer deep insight and personal detail while remaining thoroughly relatable. Her songs are short (here, only two out of eighteen run beyond three minutes), because her topics are magnifications of the microscopic: moments are explored in fine detail, and the importance in the small things is found.
Vessel is, ridiculously, 22-year-old Kline’s 52nd album as Frankie Cosmos (counting her bandcamp releases). It’s her first major release to feature a full backing band of an extra guitar, bass, drums, and two backing-vocalists. While this is standard set-up, it’s surprising for Kline – an accompaniment of one blurry, lo-fi guitar has been a perfect counterpart to her lyrics in the past, especially on 2016’s excellent Next Thing. This setting mirrored the fragility and imperfection she was singing about, and left space for her clever lines and characterful voice to occupy your attention, while making her sound distinctive. Choosing to upgrade the production and fill out her sound is something of a risk.
The songs are split almost evenly between openly discussing break-ups (“We tried/Yeah we tried/But you still made me cry” – ‘The End’), and crushes (“Making a list of people to kiss/The list is a million years long/Just “you”s all the way down” – ‘Duet’), but often these feelings overlap and compete with each other on the same song, as if Kline is less sure of what she feels than the need to sing about it. The strength of her infatuation seems to keep her tied to failing relationships, and she’s left inspecting the emotional bruises – “When the heart gets too tender, return it to sender” she advises herself on opener ‘Caramelize’. Her picture of romantic disillusionment on ‘This Stuff’ is particularly affecting, with a raw, demo-style track underpinning her regret about opening up – “Can you tell anyone this stuff?…Will they forget it within minutes?”. Elsewhere she seems tired of being mistreated but lacks the assertiveness to do much about it, “I’m always yearning to be less accommodating” she sings on ‘Accommodate’. Anxiety is always bubbling under the surface: she worries about her body, about her sex life, about her fulfilment, and she’s torn between ambition and mental exhaustion – “If I thought really hard about flying/I could probably do it/I’m just too tired for trying” (‘Jesse’).
Second single ‘Being Alive’ is the furthest Kline extends into new territory. It sets off at an unprecedentedly fast pace, then gives way to a half-time section, before doubling the feel of the tempo again and unleashing bursts of snare drum semi-quavers that recall Vampire Weekend on ‘Cousins’ or ‘Diane Young’. It then falls into half-time once more, and Kline’s band members take it in turns to deliver the song’s message: “Being alive/Matters quite a bit/Even when you feel like shit”. Discussing as huge a topic as ‘being alive’ is a complete role reversal for Kline, who normally eschews all grandiosity, so much so that it’s almost amusing. Yet it fits the track’s spirit of adventure, and of course chimes in with the implicit theme of anxiety.
While the drums are integral to ‘Being Alive’, elsewhere the additional instruments rarely earn their keep. Often they just provide padding, following her root notes, and the drums simplistically keeping time. Sometimes they actively get in the way – the lead parts of ‘The Ballad of R&J’ and ‘Accommodate’ are trite. But mostly their presence feels unnecessary, just putting more distance between Kline and the listener, reducing the intimacy and tenderness of these songs. Perhaps this is the first step in Frankie Cosmos’ evolution towards something new and great, after all, American indie’s great lyrical soloists – like Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens – all gradually moved away from minimal arrangements towards greater complexity. Vessel seems like something of a staging post on that journey, but Kline is an artist who’s done more than enough to earn trust in her abilities and vision, and the strength of her lyrics, melodies, and feelings here can’t be overlooked.