MS MR are proof that an intelligent mix of enigma and anonymity can be used to brew a potent potion of intrigue and interest: in the run-up to the release of debut album Secondhand Rapture, the band have been about as generous with providing biographical details as Enron were with disclosing their liabilities. The cat is now out the bag though, and it turns out that Lizzy Plapinger (vocals)- founder of pop label Neon Gold- is the MS, and Max Hershenow (production, instrumentation)- the producer of Ellie Goulding- is her matching MR. Whilst for lovers of the kind of “dark twisted fantasy” that MS MR sing about this might be the musical equivalent of reading Tolkien’s appendices and finding out Sauron’s entire backstory, it means one thing for sure- that from now on the focus with MS MR is all about the quality of their music.
The Florence & the Machine symmetry goes further than both bands having soundtracked trailers to consecutive seasons of Game Of Thrones: Hershenow’s stylish technique of layered instrumentation- strings, synths and stimulating tribal percussion- is heavily indebted to the Florence & the Machine school style of production. And it works well with Plapinger’s anguished and tormented vocals.
Lyrically the pictures that Plapinger paints are taken from a dark palette indeed, which matches the haunting nature of Hershenow’s electronics well. The inner workings of her mind that she sings about on Hurricane are a gloomy place- populated by death (Bones’ “Broken dreams and silent screams/ Empty churches with soulless curses”), doubt (Fantasy’s “How many hours will I let slip away before I realise existing and living are not the same?”) and a hollow feeling of detachment from others (Bones’ “These are hard times for dreamers and love-lost believers…”). If these snapshot lyrics convey that the tracks are steeped in despair, that’s because they most certainly are- yet not so much as to tarnish Hershenow’s way with a dark melodic hook.
Dazzling album opener Hurricane is a meditative trip-hop ballad that finds Plapinger reflecting on the self-consuming nature of doubt that destroyed a previous relationship; using the powerful forces of nature (storms and hurricanes) as an allegory works perfectly here when set against Hershenow’s slow building instrumentation. There’s no orchestral climax- the track dissolves away gradually, presumably to mirror the way the relationship that it soundtracks did. Bones is a tapestry of splintered guitars, rolling drums and sweeping strings that’s almost as strong as the opener.
Ash Tree Lane provides some brass section inspired levity after the first two tracks; these first three songs, along with Dark Doo Wop, mean the album is front-loaded with songs from breakthrough EP Candy Bar Creep Show- but the familiarity doesn’t detract from the songs’ joys. New single Fantasy features descending piano lines matched with infectious hand-claps, and boasts the right level of emotion stirring strings and drums to create a perfectly rounded anthemic pop song- the video also features the greatest depiction of cheerleaders projectile vomiting glitter in the history of music! Think Of You is another animated number which, with its chorus of “I still think of you and all the shit you put me through…”, might be the album’s most quotable moment; it’s another example of MS MR fusing Plapinger’s grief with Hershenow’s polished electronics.
Secondhand Rapture is a compelling debut: an absorbing and accomplished pop record infused with heartache and imagination. It’s been crafted using the light and shadow from deep within places of the human psyche that many of us would prefer not to visit… Thankfully, MS MR aren’t afraid to go there.
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