Devotees of confessional rock and roll will find a lot to work with in Elle King’s “Shake the Spirit,” a first-rate second album that deals frankly with a rough year or two the singer has had since “Ex’s and Oh’s” took her big-time. It’s infused with divorce, self-doubt, medicinal drinking, PTSD and, well, more divorce. It’s also — deceptively, or in spurts — a rowdy, good-time party record. King does means to take you into the depths of her recent experiences. But for anyone who doesn’t want to go there at album length, there are some grungy bangers that will suffice as pure sass on alternative radio.
Anyone who follows King’s press knows she’s been through a lot of ups and downs lately. She recently reconciled with her dad, comic actor Rob Schneider. And she apparently un-reconciled with her off-again, on-again husband, with whom she eloped in 2016, then made TMZ when things got combative; she did interviews about their painful split in 2017, then posted lovey Instagram make-up messages just this past Valentine’s Day. Judging from the contents of “Shake the Spirit,” the marriage is off again… very off. It sounds upsetting but it makes for good copy, as she takes a fairly scorched-earth policy toward the ex in question but doesn’t go overly easy on herself.
What style a sophomore album would take seemed as open to question as her marital status. Since “Ex’s and Oh’s” topped the alternative songs chart almost exactly three years ago (in a rare acknowledgement by that format that more than one gender exists), she participated as duet partner on Dierks Bentley’s No. 1 country hit, “It’s Different for Girls.” She subsequently signed with Bentley’s Nashville manager, and turned up on a CMT awards show just this week, leading some to wonder if she might have gotten the bug to go country. That’s not the case, although you can hear a trace of irreverent cow-punk two-beat in “It Girl” or restless Americana in “Chained,” a duet with Cameron Neal, frontman of the Oklahoma indie band Horse Thief. If anything, this time around, the guitars are rocking harder and her voice is growlier or bigger on the distortion effects. She might almost be too tough a chick for any mainstream format right now, but crossing over to country seems like the least her concerns.
The album gets off to a misleadingly free-spirited start with the boy-crazy “Talk of the Town,” a propulsive rocker that benefits from the lusty crack in her voice and a slightly deranged guitar solo. She’s also all bluster in “Baby Outlaw,” one of two collaborations with hit producer Greg Kurstin, in which he piles on the spaghetti-Western guitar and she piles on the threats to shoot someone who tried to “babydoll me.” The first single, “Shame,” takes off from a simple bass riff almost out of “Is She Really Going Out With Him” but uses it for a modern garage-rock sound that’s closer to a sexy side of the Black Keys than Joe Jackson.
These three opening numbers front-load the album with devil-may-care come-ons and play-acting threats. But things start to get a lot more personal around track 4, “Man’s Man.” Maybe it’s her vengeful assertion that she “f—ed somebody on our one-year wedding anniversary day,” which sounds, you know, awfully specific, as does “It only took three weeks to hustle me into being your wife.” It’s here, also, that she accuses an ex of drug use, calling “scared in jail” and (here is where the song title comes in) possibly being more into guys than gals. Later on, in “Runaway,” she sings, ”I should’ve known by the look in his eyes/We looked at the same guys.” Whether she means this in a playfully taunting, Katy-Perry-“Ur-So-Gay” kind of way or is seriously lamenting that her ex lied about his sexual orientation is anyone’s guess.
Things get less vengeful and more vulnerable as the album proceeds, although she sometimes couches that vulnerability in retro flavors. The autobiographically detailed “Runaway” might be too unbearably sad or fatalistic if it weren’t dressed up as a ‘60s pop pastiche. (The title suggests Del Shannon, but she’s called it her Roy Orbison knock-off.) The country-blues of “Sober” — a state King is looking forward to, not claiming, in the lyric — offers a nice slide guitar solo before she comes back in with a spoken-word recitation that sounds all Conway Twitty at the start (“Well, darling…”) and ends with an angry claim that “I could’ve been nicer, but you lied.” There’s another speech in the six-and-a-half-minute closer, “Little Bit of Lovin’,” which starts as a soul song and ends up as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
This last song underscores King’s dead-seriousness about the low points of depression and the hope of recovery, as she uses the spoken-word section to finally declare: “I don’t need the love of another person to feel complete.” But there’s a cheeky side to a lot of the songs, too, that makes any self-help sentiments go down better. At several points in the album, she engages in some kind of call-and-response with her background singers. In “Man’s Man,” after confessing, “Well, my love was pure, but I made an awful wife/’Cause my husband was down and I was just lazy,” her band agrees with her in harmony: “She was lazy.”
The most light-hearted song, “It Girl,” offers an even more comical call-and-response that probably can’t be printed in a family newspaper. It’s a jaunty little tune about how she learned to please boys in middle school, and recommends that everyone do the same: “You could be the it girl/If you use a little spit, girl,” she sings, in one of the more printable couplets. You can only imagine the A&R discussions that might have taken place over whether to include this wickedly funny and inappropriate-for-almost-any-occasion tune on the album. Suffice it to say that she may be making an ironic statement about how young women get by in the world, but it sounds just on-the-level enough that you may want to skip this number if you have a 14-year-old daughter, or if you are a 14-year-old daughter.
King has gotten a pretty good album out of a pretty bad spell, and we can use her candor and her voice — not just figuratively but literally, since those bluesy, gutsy tones rarely make it into any kind of rock and roll these days, much less the alternative kind. (She and Bishop Briggs have a big job on their hands, with that.) It’s also a treat to hear something this emotionally unfiltered that mixes in some sweet string and horn charts to augment the raw meat of the lyrics, vocals and guitars. If next time she makes an album that’s as upbeat as it sounds, we’ll take that, too, but King has done herself proud with this half-fun, half-harrowing transitional effort.
“Shake the Spirit”
Producers: King, Matt Pence, Greg Kurstin, Tim Pagnotta