Led by Montreal-based singer-songwriter Elizabeth Powell, Land of Talk has strayed rather drastically from its standard formula with its new record, Performances.
Land of Talk is one of the great stalwarts of Canadian indie, quietly building a 17-year-long career as a constant producer of great rock songs. Though its path has led to collaborations with legends like American Football, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten, it still feels like Land of Talk has never quite gotten its due as a consistently excellent band.
Albums like 2008’s stellar Some Are Lakes and 2017’s comeback record Life After Youth established the project’s unique blend of confessional, intimate songwriting with alternately angular and dreamily country-inflected instrumentals.
But from the opening “Intro (high bright high),” Performances shows Land of Talk’s disinterest in returning to freewheeling guitar music. Instead, it leads with spare, twinkling electric piano as the introduction to a brief but wide-ranging record that draws from post-rock, hip hop and synth-pop.
The lead single, “Your Beautiful Self” is at once propulsive and heartbreakingly vulnerable. Powell sings in an uncharacteristically low range, spitting lyrics that sound like a self-effacing but ultimately motivational letter to themselves. The track is eerily quiet, bristling with an understated anxiety.
“Fluorescent Blood” is a murky and clattering 80s-inspired synth ballad that features unrecognizably distorted vocals from Powell. The period of time spent writing this album was described by Powell as one of “identity confusion,” which manifests itself both in the newly strange music and here, in their self-presentation, hiding their usually prominent and confrontational vocals in the mix.
The ballads “Marry It” and “Rainbow Protection” are easy to imagine as more traditional Land of Talk songs, but in their form here they become enveloping, overwhelming experiences, amplified in intensity by their barebone arrangements.
“Semi-Precious” meanwhile suggests Vespertine-era Björk with its mix of dense strings, floaty vocals and skittering drums.
But the album’s most outlandish experiment comes with the seven-minute-long instrumental closer, “Pwintiques,” evoking experimental rock bands like Tortoise with a technically impressive, busy drum track colliding with ambient synths and pianos.
In abandoning their preconceived notions of what a Land of Talk album should be, Powell has arrived at something new and exciting with Performances. It is a brave album, with a remarkably wide scope for its modest runtime and hopefully a sign of more expansive work from the veteran project.
Performances is available on major streaming services.