“I felt like Perfectionist was 100% of less than 100% of me,” Natalia Kills explained to me earlier this year while we spoke about the follow-up to her debut. And in a lot of ways, she was spot-on: While her 2011 record had plenty of radio-friendly, dark-pop offerings (including “Mirrors” and “Wonderland”), there was still a slight issue: A piece of Kills’ personality was missing.
It was time to give the listeners something more of herself. Something more vulnerable. Something more aggressive. Welcome to Trouble, Natalia’s follow-up to Perfectionist — as she would likely suggest, your worst nightmare.
Trouble is a not-so-fictional account of a badly-behaved girl with a fucked-up past, making no apologies as she tells the tale of her less-than-ideal upbringing across 13 tracks, all while slipping on her dancing shoes and soldiering onward into the night. (As Britney says in For The Record: “I’m really not interested in pity…what I could use is some understanding.”)
From the jarring noise of “Controversy” to the soulful breeziness of “Outta Time,” the Cherrytree Records songstress has undergone a fairly drastic evolution in both style and sound.
While recording new material over the past two years, Kills moved away from the chilly synth-pop of her debut, opting instead for powerful, energetic licks of guitar and pounding drums courtesy of Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie.
“Problem,” the jagged lead single from Trouble, provided Natalia with the irreverent, studded leather middle finger high in the sky that she needed to get her point across. It’s the most assured Kills has ever sounded before: “That girl is a goddamn problem!” she angrily spits across the striptease-ready bad bitch anthem.
Yes, Trouble is largely about causing trouble — fear not, there’s plenty of that. But beyond the champagne, pills and cop cars, it’s about exploring the root of the troublemaking.
On the opening track “Television,” Natalia’s point is as crystal-clear as an HD screen: “Mommy, daddy…is anybody there? / You know, people think they know everything about us,” she explains above fuzzy fragments of news reports before launching into the meat of the track, a pounding singalong: “Your business, go mind it / This ain’t fuckin’ Jerry Springer!” she croons.
Alcoholic fathers, criminal activity, domestic abuse, drugs and deviance — she lays it all out, radio-friendly lyricism be damned.
Nowhere is that more evident than her dancing-through-the-tears battle cry “Saturday Night,” which explores the major theme of Trouble, her past. “Momma you’re beautiful tonight, movie star hair and that black eye,” she begins on the anthemic midtempo. It’s a chilling celebration of perseverance, and the song’s gorgeously shot video helps to paint a picture of her past.
Daddy’s done some serious damage, as suggested on a slew of badly-behaved tracks including “Stop Me,” a chilling haunt (and personal favorite). The song sees Natalia devilishly dancing her way through the VIP and running around town in a pair of sky-high heels: “If I run away with you tonight, we could make the wrongs feel right,” she dreamily croons. “We could do some damage, fuck me in the Paris lights.”
Of all the different sounds on Trouble, it’s the throwback soul of songs like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Outta Time” (complete with vinyl crinkle) that offer some of the album’s biggest surprises, putting a fresh spin on vintage sound with big, pure pop hooks that might as well have come from The Ronettes.
It’s even more surprising when sandwiched in between aggressive cuts like “Controversy,” the album’s most raucous roar, which was used as the first tease of new material late this year. The song still grinds hard, channeling all of Kills’ anger into one carefully curated cultural takedown, reminiscent of Kanye West‘s snarling Yeezus material. “Cheerleaders, wet panties / Drug dealers, porn addicts,” she growls.
Essentially, Natalia’s not the only one with the problem.
At a certain point, she hits the wall and things grow especially morbid on “Marlboro Lights,” a chilling remembrance of a former flame that leads Natalia down a deadly road. “A lonely bridge / A rooftop ledge could just fix everything,” she contemplates. The production is minimal, aside from a subtle piano melody and some ghostly echoes — it’s Natalia’s capable voice (which has also improved enormously since Perfectionist).
There is some room for fun on Trouble, even if it’s still deeply rooted in wild child behavior: Take “Rabbit Hole,” a free-for-all spree down a tunnel of indulgence. “I eat boys like a cannibal / Fuck hard, howl at the moon like an animal,” she menacingly declares above bouncy, bubbly beats and — like a more X-rated take on Gwen Stefani‘s Love Angel Music Baby.
But for the most part, Trouble is about facing her demons head-on. When she truly hits her mark — merging message with melody, as with the piano-led “Devils Don’t Fly” — she goes in straight for the jugular. “It’s not ’cause I’m young or from a broken home / Maybe I just fight ’cause I don’t know where I belong,” she tenderly confesses across the brooding number.
Trouble is a tightly crafted, well-polished pop production with the sharpest of edges. It’s also multipurpose — an autobiography, a rowdy pre-party playlist and a therapy session all in one. The songs are cohesive and intelligently soul-bearing in a way that feels neither exploitative nor cliched. Natalia makes no apologies and flaunts every scar on her sophomore effort — something that her fans, critics and new listeners alike will all undoubtedly appreciate.
By the time the album’s title track arrives at the very end, floating in with an air of ’90’s rock nostalgia, Kills’ point has been made. Strongly. “It’s the only way I know,” she declares, “I’m trouble!” The soaring, fun.-like hooks and pounding drums are purely a lighters-up (err, smartphones-up) moment. This is the defining anthem; a perfect way to close a celebration of imperfection.
Trouble was released on September 3. (iTunes)