"This is all I know of love," Elisa Ambrogio sings on "Comers," off her disorienting heartthrob (Drag City) release, The Immoralist, as she tramples the trite propensity of writers to overburden their works with cliché symbols and somehow expect the results to convey unique sentiment. In this case, under attack is the spirited metaphor of the fabled horse, which is always the wild stallion, never the common day farmhouse idler – "when a horse becomes freedom / instead of a broken thing / you've never learned to ride," she sings – and then Ambrogio puts the old horse down, burying it in drumrolls, echoed vocals and feedback.
For the past 12 years, Ambrogio has been best known for her work with Magik Markers, the noise rock band Thurston Moore introduced to broader circles in 2004 when he took them on tour with Sonic Youth. With Magik Markers, Ambrogio's a thrilling part of an experimental force, and so the news of her solo record emerged with plenty of mystique for longtime fans eager to hear what she'd do when left to her own devices.
"I don't see ghosts / I don't believe in 13," The Immoralist begins with stunning opener "Superstitious," a song that's enjoying a quiet rumble of support into 2015, passed between avid music fans by word of mouth like the whispered superstitions it decries. Although Ambrogio wasn't available for interview for this story (she's been bogged down with interview requests, a credit to the strength of her solo debut), she told Tiny Mix Tapes in October 2014 that her songs often pivot the narrative perspective, featuring different characters to tell her lovelorn tales. In "Superstitious," the narrator is so frightened to lose her love, she rejects every known superstition – not because they might bring bad luck, but because they evaporate and become meaningless in light of the otherworldliness of her attachment. It's creepy romantic, empathetically frail and curiously experimental for all the finger drumming the song inspires.
An innovative songwriter, Ambrogio credits her The Immoralist collaborator Jason Quever for the bewildering opening note of "Superstitious" (which sounds like a mutant whale bellow and is actually haunting when you don't know how it's achieved). In an interview with Wondering Sound (November 2014), Ambrogio describes the creative technique Quever employed: "Jason said, 'Let's set up my tape machine and let's sing onto the tape and flip it and turn it backwards and have that physical stretched-out sound of slowed-down human vocals on an analog tape.' I never would've thought to do that. I just was like, 'Maybe we can do it in ProTools or something.'" It's an exciting indication that Ambrogio's tweaked visions become enhanced through collaborative execution, even when she's calling all the shots.
The album benefits from sparse poetic expression and pretty cacophony, featuring the first verses recorded that she wrote without intending to put to song. She described to Tiny Mix Tapes how songwriting adds dimension to simple verse:
"I think it a gift of songwriting that a phrase that might not work poetically on the page, something simple, becomes recontextualized in music. The adverb 'suddenly' is kind of a wanky word for poetry or fiction. 'Suddenly' in 'My Opening Farewell' by Jackson Browne contains a complexity and a beauty it doesn't have as just a word because of tonality. 'Malfunction' is such a dry, robotic word until John Joseph repeats it, over those heavy chords, with that desperate melisma. Buddy Holly was a master of the stripped-down simplicity of a lyric, paired with a melodic complexity imbuing every word with a whole dictionary of meaning."
Now add "superstitious" to that list.