Kimbra: A Reckoning
The Māori word for mine and Kimbra Lee Johnson’s kind is patupaiarehe for “fairy” or tūrehu for “the fairy people,” all those lightling linnet types who dance in the mist and play bone flutes. True to our glittering genome in any culture or language, Kimbra is tidal and tiny. Likewise aligned with our minikin métier, her speaking voice is a gibbous and growly lathi, while her artistic one remains a four-octave lyric soprano living in an astral aerie. Throughout a climacteric two-decade career that has cut a path unlike that of any other female artist working concurrently in the glacial pop sphere, Kimbra’s cloistral songs have represented as much rhapsodic recipes, writ ritmico, as they have aural opportunities for listening society to see a woman not reducible to the reverse cachet of a given title. She could never be misinterpreted as “folksy,” and her latest prehensile proffering, A Reckoning, finds her hanging upside down from tunes that sleep on truckle beds in tumbledown rooms, a woman Nitrox-certified in both finding and delivering geomagnetic inspiration.
While no one worships a wily Melbourne-by-way-of-Bruges boy more than this Australantan Aus-addict, if all that you know of Kimbra is her fulcrum role in Gotye’s indestructibly brilliant breakup ballad “Somebody That I Used To Know,” you have been denied the miracle of her widest magic. From the 2011 release of her volcanic debut, Vows, forward, Kimbra wasted no time announcing herself as a femme-Appolonian answer to the ridgeling gumi boys grandstanding their best during that musical era, and a prebuttal to the virgin nylon vixens that would shortly come to scratch at the popularity post as well. Finding common threads between seemingly disparate lyrical lairs and showing them to be merely biphasic rather than binary is her indelible artistic autograph. Chaos and contemplation find consentience and common ground within the cavils and compassions of her polyglottal creative mind, and she is like an adventuresome woylie behind the Wurlitzer on which she does the lion’s share of her songwriting.
By 2014, The Golden Echo illustrated Kimbra’s momentous gift for versified ventriloquism, and the way she would use a shadow as a silencer both in her words and in where she chose to sing them. In every incarnation of herself that she unveiled on that album, she carried herself like an enchanted princess born out of wedlock to an underclass barmaid – but one birthed directly into the unwavering knowledge that the only royalty available to humanity comes to life in the ruderal straw.
From synthetic hyper-pop to acoustic cavitation so holy it feels hallucinatory, Kimbra is always circumspect at cask-strength in anything she sings. She writes songs with alien panoramas that are somehow still earthbound in their phonic familiarity and theatrical story arcs. What fellow fey woman and Wolfish author Erica Berry delineated about the concept of ‘chewy’ sentences, or “the lozenge-like quality of a perfect word,” Kimbra does with sounds. Determinedly daring in her desideratum, she lays track for pathological planning and estuarine improvisation to share egalitarian real estate within her terraforming tunes, full of tamarinds, tame mongooses, and all manner of tail-tales in between.
That same year, “90s Music” became the first of many examples of the way in which all musical languages become simply the Kimbra argot the moment she gets hold of them. Though she may technically be Pākehā (a white New Zealander) on paper, 2018’s Primal Heart showed Kimbra to wield a tidy wodge of intangibly intelligent jungle lingo that she put to ever more lustral use on that admirably feral record. The degree to which her vestibular flame flickers and smolders on that album is like a course in the mandala – she herself like a gulmohar tree in galoshes, her every emotion ringed in red baize.
Contributing to the original motion picture soundtrack for 2019’s Daffodils and working most recently at the figural fountainhead of Electric Lady, her connection to orchestral topographies extends far beyond her naturally dreamy devoir. See her timely appearance on the Suzie Collier podcast for evidence of her ergaster-like enthusiasm for all things creatively compositional as she talks in raw first-person candor to the laurel-draped violinist about everything from intimacy and intuition to the bows that draw both those strings, and all of the other strings that matter to any extreme degree in life or art.
A Reckoning, with its tellingly lowercase song titles, casts Kimbra as the faceless personification of a gnostic irony once-removed from the central action of the play, while simultaneously serving as its Shakespeare-less author-narrator. She’s a statistician here, proving new theorems in the mathematics of knots – both the kind that bind and the kind that live in your belly when inter-twinings you thought were hard and fast in your life come unceremoniously untied. Unfortunately, even for wingéd seekers with dogged spiritual searchlights, our modern ‘accept everything’ culture does not supply a mantra-space for people who are stuck in neutral and have no idea of that fact yet, and there is presently no dark comradeship actively encouraged between stale sensory signals and the singing pinks of transcendence. What Kimbra has ultimately done with A Reckoning is to write a choral code for that condition.
Quentin Tarantino asserts: “A writer should have this little voice inside of you saying, ‘Tell the truth. Reveal a few secrets here.’” Kimbra has more than heeded Tarantino’s diktat via A Reckoning, which feels like exiled L.A. street slink with flagellant’s stigmata set to cobalt frills and writhing with medusa-as-maternal-sexuality energy. It is a pandowdy of ponderings on multiple forms of muliebrity, the machinations of money, and magical thinking. It is also written from that quiet, unseen moment when marriages symbolically end, when a love is discovered by the subconscious to be less than the full shilling, but everybody involved is several operatic epiphanies away from being able to grasp or remotely address that riptide-realization. Jack Gilbert’s Icarian poem entitled “Falling and Flying” does a sterling job of explicating the troubling way that the end of a relationship seems to devour its beginning, and the way the texture of a failure in and of itself may represent some form of triumph for its owners. Kimbra’s A Reckoning has recorded the reverberant sound to be measured in the weight of such a pyrrhic trophy.
Because Kimbra is also a stalking horse of a sound designer, forever testing dangerous theories, uncharted waters, and ideas veering to irreverent puncture, you can forget how bold she is for using her findings on herself before any third party. With A Reckoning, she is clearly not here to write an encomium for the echoes she is eulogizing, rather to run them up and down a fly-blown staircase inside her personal estimation of herself until they give out, until she can see with clarity where the bitter lye of the lie started – and then to set about making it useful, to carve it into the next top stair needed for her continued upward ascent.
Atlanta’s Terminal West became a transept for just such a medicinal meditation on February 10, 2023 as Kimbra regaled A-Town with a pharaonic retelling of A Reckoning, and astonished all with her ability to publicly navigate the scaldownloaded emotional experiences it harbors with as much impregnable contemplation as if she were a member of the legendary Alexandrian Therapeutae traversing the Pacific by collapsible kayak. “replay!”, the ballistic missile of a lead single, with its traipsing dinosaur synths, and “save me,” a countermanding charrette with the supercell storm in her own soul, played out like very serious serialized cartoons she was drawing about her life in real-time. “foolish thinking,” with its nursery harps and its hypnopompic hopes for a future daughter, as yet unconceived, sounded lifted directly from the invisible dictation of a scrambler telephone within her soul. It was that secret and special, its release to futility happening through orchestral harmonies made all of her layered voice, and the underscored beauty of acknowledging the lack of sense in trying to shield children (or anyone else) from life’s rattier received wisdom. “Some songs speak from the future,” she sagely announced of this one, and a knowing permeated the room that what this song continues to foretell, for her, is still immiscible.
“gun”, in its juxtaposition of her marmoreal vocals against such a comminuted riflecore of percussion, extends the metaphor expressed in the words-as-weapons lyrics to the actual notes Kimbra is singing – they ricochet and strike unsuspecting targets as she refuses to do any more dickering with wankerish dicks, looking to cadge her charisma al pastor. What couple-thinkers may see as a “symptom” of singularity she recognizes as its greatest reward, and like all that have been fortunate enough to reach that height of individualistic insight, she draws enormous power from the bottomless well of possibility it offers. “personal space” pounces along like free booze, hash, and heresy, and every time the prickings of shame prance by like a pack of hares in the undercurrent of Kimbra’s captured feelings within it, the R&B-inflected pyramiding of her voice made them sound like a helpmate rather than a sharp claw. “i don’t want to fight” is the sonic embodiment of the way some conversations could not be more antiseptic or surgical if you were forced to scrub in before you entered them. Rather than give in to the tortures of such tedium vitae tanglings in a love relationship, Kimbra encloses her freedom in a Faraday cage within this song, and she lets her vocals be the only conductive material needed or allowed for the preservation of the control that is rightly hers.
“the way we were” arrived dread-soaked and bric-a-brac’d by intentionally torn timbre-seams, and “new habit” was a near shave to a devotional scapular, like a lyrical daydream only half remembered but designed to be worn as a protective totem. All of the songs on A Reckoning turn on a singular theme, orbit a solo sun: the nidification needs of a nymph. “Settle Down,” an early single from Vows, sinister in its sincerity, mixes with deliberate Stepfordisms in the live setting to remind all onlookers of what none should be permitted to misremember: no liberated woman ever straddled the line between furbelow and fossicking better than Kimbra. No one ever better effloresced in the effluvium of the effeminate, all whilst undeniably being the bull’s pizzle in the room.
Primal Heart’s “Top Of The World” further bore this truism out and “Love In High Places,” off The Golden Echo, remains perhaps the best ever example of how she is inclined to sing between beats, leaping atop inaudible-to-all-but-her phrasal plateaus in a way wholly unique. Kimbra finds tonal terrain to tiptoe across that makes you wonder how she heard that vocal stepping stone in the first place as her tracks, if you strip all but her voice away, retain such a simulacrum of simplicity. What can be understood immediately from this is that Kimbra understands some fundamentally indefinable things about sound being, at root, a vibration – and one that will morph with each person it passes through. Hearing her live lets you realize she has thought all that through long before she ever sculpted the sounds to whatever they became inside the controlled stasis of the recording, and she is both looking to reanimate those corpses and to make them dance in a new way every single time she performs them.
A particularly urbane example of this was her inclusion of her “baby artist song,” as she called it, “Cameo Lover,” which is from the days when she was delivering her coquettish calypso candy in a cocotte with no lid handle, and visually presenting herself as a Kiwi kewpie doll come to life – but one puppeteered exclusively even then by her own hands. The decision to close with “Version Of Me” would likewise be at loggerheads with traditional singers’ unfounded attitudes about signing off on an up-tempo marabout movement of one kind or another. The lyric “stay for the person I’ll be,” however, for Kimbra, was not just the major thematic point of the arms drop that is A Reckoning, but the succinct memo of her entire professional purpose, and the bedrock of the internal reasons she shared for having made that record at all.
There exists a certain Stylite-smothering element throughout the history of many influential record labels when they encounter youthful, vivacious, moxie-driven female artists. If you are such a rare bird, you can generally expect to be diminished by way of marketeering sexualization, or dismissed even ahead of that by way of some “more experienced” (read: male) SSL-board operator politely talking over your stated artistic wishes, trying to make you anurous, while you are in the middle of the recording process. Women musicians are meant to meet all this with flowery courtesies that flatter the splenetic strangler fashioning their nooses but calling them trendy velvet chokers. Thereby, there is a rangy risk calculus in the act of venturing out into the music world mononymously from the start like Kimbra did, not allowing the public or anyone else to name you what they want, or to abbreviate you to a size they can then take traditional ownership of. It is always better to be deeply loved than widely liked, no question, but nearly extinct is the creature that can pull off both with the ergodicity that Kimbra has done, much less on the global stage and across a genre-less career apostrophized by multiple apogees. The world may too frequently forget that Icarus flew because the horror of his fall is what our fright-currency society has come to deem more significant, but Kimbra, whether in the studio or on the stage, will allow no such picking of the stitches between imagination and reality, and her ongoing tour for A Reckoning makes it thankfully obvious that she has never been talked out of the vital importance of self-made feathers.
- Save Me
- The Way We Were
- Settle Down
- Foolish Thinking
- A. Type
- New Habit
- Top Of The World
- Love In High Places
- Personal Space
- I Don’t Want To Fight
- Cameo Lover
- Version Of Me