It’s really hard not to burst into superlative overload when it comes to Kelli Schaefer’s voice. It’s an instrument of such distinction, power, and nuance that it’s capable of telling stories and painting worlds as readily as an entire orchestral pit of instruments.
Those pipes of hers have proven remarkably versatile over Schaefer’s decade-long musical career. They helped add cinematic Americana sweep to her debut EP Lasso the Moon, and she’s been able to apply that voice towards everything from ambient electronica to loop-heavy pop on 2011’s full-length Ghost of the Beast and Schaefer’s 2013 EP 601.
As evinced by the stylistic shifts she’s taken over the last ten years, Kelli Schaefer is one restless soul creatively, so it’s a given that No Identity, her first long-player in six years, never sits still. There’s a sense of palpable, wiry energy to it that makes it an uncompromising, unflinching work—and one that unfolds its layers with increased richness every time you listen. Color me addicted.
No Identity’s occasionally jagged edges and jumpy unease make it a spiritual kin to PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, another great record forged from a decidedly unsettled state. But where the music and lyrics of Harvey’s 1993 sophomore record spike directly into the frankly sexual, Schaefer’s songs are a little more of a Rorschach Test: The lyrics will likely mean something different to the ears of each beholder.
Then again, every song on No Identity is also unified by references to pushing against self-imposed restraints, and to the inwardly-directed aggressions that self-exploration and redefinition can inspire. The record’s opening title track begins with loud, repetitive electric guitar strums as Schaefer croons, ““Digging my whole life/I missed the goddamn center a goddamn hundred times.” More frustration, and more tooth-and-nail fighting with limitations comes out as the song surges relentlessly: “‘Cause I am a bobcat trying to be a tiger, trying to push through.”
This is high-wire psychological territory that feels fraught with danger, and much of the time the music’s just as peril-packed. The guitars snarl and bite like rage-stoked pit bulls on the menacing “Mind is a Cone,” and they’re so jagged on the title track they sound like they’d scrape flesh. Schaefer and guitarist Ryan Lynch also bust out some serious double-barreled rock muscle at several points, bending Led Zeppelin’s epic mutant-blues template to their whims on “Shiny Black Feathers” and “Gold Baby.” Blitzkrieg punk even rears its mohawk’ed head on the vicious “Moonstruck.” True to form, Schaefer’s voice soars and cuts and gut-punches with drama-drenched force when the song demands it.
But No Identity isn’t all crunch and noise. Plenty of range and unexpected colors surface along the way. “Big Black Box” is a stripped-down, otherworldly rhythm-and-blues inversion that sees keyboardist Drew Grow joining Schaefer for some eerie, soulful harmonies. And I’m utterly, head-over-heels enchanted with the sublime “Underground.” Schaefer’s voice dances hypnotically over a gently-fuzzed guitar line at the beginning, until the song breaks into a breathtaking new-wave pocket symphony replete with creamily-lush layered harmonies, soaring solo vocal runs, falling-star swatches of keyboards, and a sense of playful sensuality (“how many pieces will you stack up on it / It’s up to you, I can feel your desire / I will be your supplier”) amidst the surreal, evocative lyrics.
The ethereal “Bad for You” closes out No Identity with an aching loveliness that feels hard-won after the dense journey travelled by the preceding nine songs. “So when you’re feeling angry, lonely, bored, and the world has nothing new,” Schaefer sings, “just remember I’m a flower and it’s bad for me too / will you let me hold you / you’re not alone.” Kelli Schaefer’s latest record makes for an oft-treacherous emotional ride, but there’s adventure, redemption, and catharsis awaiting anyone brave enough to make the trek with her.
Kelli Schaefer delivers a powerhouse of a live performance, so it’s your loss if you miss No Identity‘s release show at The Sunset in Ballard Saturday, April 22. Tickets are available here. And you’re welcome.