A neon noir tour de force of hi-def late-night pop, Slow Phaser marks Nicole Atkins’ most ingenious and indelibly modern collection to date. Produced by Tore Johannson - with whom she partnered on her now-classic 2007 debut, Neptune City - the album is a milestone for the acclaimed singer/songwriter, her restless creativity fully realized via the addition of some surprising colors to her already diverse paintbox. Songs like the poptastic “Girl You Look Amazing” and the sultry “Red Ropes” positively swirl with day-glo danceability, the bright hues setting Atkins’ distinctive creative voice in a brilliant and undeniable new light. Bittersweet yet life affirming, Slow Phaser is Nicole Atkins at her confident and unpredictable best – spirited, sexy, and determinedly forward thinking.
“I wanted to make something that no one’s ever heard before,” she says, “including myself.”
A charismatic and committed live performer, Atkins followed 2011’s adventurous Mondo Amore with a long year on the road. Upon her return, the New Jersey-based artist began to rethink her overall approach. Atkins went on creative walkabout, visiting various musician friends across the country and starting a productive collaboration with veteran drummer/producer Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks). The two clicked immediately, penning three songs on the very first day they set to work.
“Jim really helped me articulate a lot of what I was feeling,” she says. “He helped me make the things I was writing sound more like when I just wrote songs for myself. He taught me a lot about writing… again.”
Luckily – or perhaps not – she was in Memphis when Hurricane Sandy wreaked its havoc on the Jersey Shore and her familial home.
“It was awful,” she says. “The whole first floor was flooded, we didn’t have power for 18 days. Everything is pretty much back now, but its different. Everybody in the town aged a lot this year.”
As she pondered her next move, fate rang long distance. Hearing of her recent travails, her old producer Tore Johansson – known for his work with Franz Ferdinand, The Cardigans, and many others – invited Atkins to come record at his residential Malmö, Sweden studio.
“He said, ‘As soon as you can get here, get here,’” she says. “It was the perfect double whammy. Here was someone who was going to help me make my record and give me a place to live.”
Atkins packed up two years of songs, poetry, and journals, not to mention the hundreds of beat-based musical ideas stored on her iPhone. With Johansson’s able assistance, she devised a compelling new sonic approach, melding psychedelic energy, prog rock adventurism, after hours disco ambience, and the raw emotional purity of the finest country soul. Atkins stripped her traditional instrumentation to its core – Johansson handled bass duties, joined by The Cardigans’ Lars-Olaf Johansson on guitar, keyboardist Martin Gjerstad, and Asbury Park’s own Sam Bey behind the drum kit – placing considerably more emphasis on electronics than on her previous recordings.
“It sounds large but not cluttered,” she says. “We only used four instruments and tracked everything live. Instead of layering on a bunch of strings and horns and bells, the idea was to try to make everything have such complex melodies that they fit together like a puzzle. Every little bit counts.”
The result is remarkably vivid and varied, with songs like the opening “Who Killed The Moonlight?” blazing with transcendent pop hooks and floor-filling rhythms unlike anything Atkins has done before. She further pushed her songwriting by penning a series of wry, candid songs casting a mordant eye at pretentious boyfriends (“It’s Only Chemistry”), ponderous hipsters (“Cool People”), and the endless highway that is her perpetual home (“Gasoline Bride”). Slow Phaser comes to its poignant emotional close with “The Worst Hangover” – replete with images of shattered disco balls glittering on the storm swept Jersey shoreline – and the sparse, powerful “Above As Below,” which finds our heroine alone at sea, “surrendering to the void, just me, seagulls, and the gods.” A committed believer in the enduring power of the album-as-art form, Atkins embraced a classically tripartite sequencing inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s notorious psychotropic western, El Topo.
“When it starts out, the protagonist is really cocky and sure of himself and makes terrible decisions without thinking about the repercussions,” she says. “In the second part, he has everything taken away and is really put in his place. Then, in the end, he accepts it and tries to find spiritual meaning in order to be a better person.”
Atkins plans to release Slow Phaser on her own Oh’Mercy! Records, an assertion of ownership that embraces her ever fervent fanbase, who are helping fund the project through a successful PledgeMusic campaign. In addition, the always ambitious artist plans to indulge her defiantly prog dreams with the most theatrical live performances of her career thus far.
“I’m going to wear a cape and shoot lasers out of my hands,” she says. “Really.”
Inventive and irresistible, Slow Phaser positively radiates with idiosyncrasy and a palpable sense of fully empowered musical discovery.
“It’s taken me a while to figure out who I really am,” Nicole Atkins says. “Musically, and as a person. It’s constantly changing. I’m not just this one character. I’m an artistic person trying to figure shit out.”