Nashville-born, Brooklyn-based Mackenzie Scott was 22 in 2013 when she recorded and self-released her debut album under the ambiguous name Torres. Concurrently with rising stars like Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, her queer Southern feminism has matured over time, with songwriting that is both autobiographical and vividly narrative in scale.
On her debut, Scott presents Torres as a fully formed musical identity: highly intimate, often painful lyrics, accompanied by her own strummed, scraped and, at times, surprising guitar playing. Recorded live to tape, the 10-track TORRES instantly attracted attention for Scott’s memorably scorched vocal tones, harrowing subject matter and arresting loud-soft dynamics. Her early work owes something to 1990s college rock icons like PJ Harvey and Lisa Germano, but the most relevant comparison might be to the late Chris Whitley, with whom TORRES shares some production and guitar techniques.
In her best song, “Moon & Back,” she opens “Little baby, if you’re reading this…I’m writing you from 1991” It’s a vivid message of a mother to a daughter given up for adoption. Torres later confirmed that she is the 22-year old who was given up for adoption as a baby in that year, and it’s her envisioning what her birth mother may have felt. The math and the subject matter make the logic inescapable. In “Honey,” “Mother Earth, Father Sky” and “Jealousy and I,” Torres sings of unmet needs, desires and simmering conflicts that threaten to explode. Cellos, keyboards and a rhythm section add some heft, but most of the presence is Scott herself. There is deep emotional intensity here, carefully held in check. Like the best of the 1990s alternative songwriters, Scott excels at building tension with a song, only to suddenly throttle back to simple strummed guitar and vocals before raising the emotional stakes again. It’s wrenching stuff for a young woman to sing; it’s engrossing and riveting to see her do it onstage.
Recorded in England with producer Rob Ellis, Sprinter was a substantial step forward, both commercially and artistically. Scott fully embraces the 1990s comparisons (especially P.J. Harvey) and backed her singing with a full band in the studio for the first time. She is exceptionally effective as a storyteller, contemplating her own childhood and its regrets with unflinching directness. The excess of religion and the harm it can inflict on children are the subjects of the title track, where Scott’s voice is processed, multi-tracked hypnotically on the chorus. (“There’s freedom to, and freedom from / Freedom to run, from everyone / While what I did is what is done / The Baptist in me chose to run.”)
Torres is at its best when Scott balances her firm emotional control with the chaos encroaching from all sides. With shivering guitar from Portishead’s Adrian Utley, “A Proper Polish Welcome” is a lovely folk song that underlies its frigidity and sense of dread like an American Gothic version of Fairport Convention. “New Skin” and “Strange Hellos” employ carnal and religious themes — skin, rebirth, physical and mental decay, the Christian wedding liturgy. With Sharon Van Etten’s backing vocals and soaring guitars by the War on Drugs, “New Skin” captures Scott at her most intimate and her most stormy. “I’m a tired woman / In January I will just be 23 / In Kansas City I was undressed and bested.” Is it a forced marriage or merely an unhappy one? Scott excels at depicting personal pain, chewing it over in contemplation and spitting it back out. Despite the trauma implied in many of the songs, there is great beauty as well; Torres walks a fine line between delicacy and ugliness.
Following Sprinter, Torres returned to England to record with Rob Ellis again producing and contributions from Adrian Utley as well as members of PJ Harvey’s touring bands. Three Futures takes a decided turn toward keyboards and thudding electronics. It’s a darkly sensual record of queer desire, fear and lust, with a lot of third-person narratives. The album opens with “Tongue Slap Your Brains Out,”a defense of Scott’s Southern roots amidst swirling synthesizers that sound more Germanic than Georgian (despite the endorsement of peach cobbler). “Greener Stretch” has the rolling motorik groove of Kraftwerk; the heavily treated guitar solos in “Skim” resemble St. Vincent. “Helen of the Woods” is a spectacularly overwrought horror vignette about a witch or a succubus or perhaps just a misunderstood woman in a suspicious small town. Despite the warmth of the gently murmuring “Marble Focus” and the appealing slow burn of the eight-minute closer, “To Be Given a Body,” Three Futures is a hard record to enjoy.
After her one-and-done deal with 4AD, Scott released a few standalone tracks as web demos. The most noteworthy was “Gracious Day” (2018), which begins with a tender voicemail between Scott and her partner, Southern artist Jenna Gribbon. The love song to her is mostly fingerpicked acoustic guitar, but the critical lyric is “I don’t want you going home anymore / I want you coming home.” It’s not sappy; it’s desperate and haggard; Scott is trying to salvage something that she clearly feared losing. It’s undeniable in its Southernness. The title is religious in origin, so there’s a subtle blasphemy in using it to characterize a same-sex love affair.
“Gracious Day” (minus the voicemail) became a highlight of Silver Tongue. After album covers of Scott staring into the camera or into the view of the audience, this one was painted by Gribbon — Scott holding small blue flowers (a reference to the song “A Few Blue Flowers”) while a flying saucer hovers over her shoulder. The self-produced Silver Tongue is a better synthesis of Scott’s songwriting and production than Three Futures, finding a balance between her guitar and keyboard-fronted songs. “Good Scare” is breathtaking, both humorous (joking about country music tropes, like getting knocked up in the back of a Chevy pickup) but also tender and desperate. “When you said you couldn’t swing it, you gave me a good scare for a minute there / I had never seen that look from you before, you were eyeing all the exits.” The love song “Dressing America” is a direct statement of commitment and dedication, rendered more powerful with the video, in which Scott and Gribbon carry each other through the nighttime streets of Brooklyn. A powerful record about the throat-catching fears and hopes that accompany a deeply felt intimate connection.
After the album appeared, Torres began a tour of Europe just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Scott and her band were stranded when air travel was suspended; she appealed to fans to bankroll emergency flights home and barely got back before New York went into lockdown. The digital release Live in Berlin documents the final show of the tour (March 12, 2020) before the rest was cancelled. It’s a fierce, frantic performance in front of a small audience; the 15-track set leans heavily on Silver Tongue but hopscotches around the rest of Torres’ catalogue. Chattering percussion lends additional tension to “Good Scare,” while Scott and J.R. Bohannon add searing guitar solos to “Last Forest.” A haggard, distorted version of “New Skin” accentuates its dynamic range. Drummer Bryan Bisordi gives the songs a straightforward heft and drive; Erin Manning’s synthesizers and harmonies are especially moving on “Three Futures.” The shows ends with a frenetic “Helen in the Woods” that devolves into guitar feedback and a teary, “I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
Given the circumstances of the pandemic, Thirstier is a remarkably happy — and horny — album, celebrating the romance and intimacy with Gribbon. Regrettably, it’s not the same caliber as some of her prior albums. Recorded largely in England with regular collaborators Rob Ellis, Peter Miles and Adrian Utley, it is an unabashed throwback to late ’90s alternative rock at its biggest and brashest, with sonic touchstones of Smashing Pumpkins, L7 and, of course, Nirvana. While one is inclined to celebrate with Scott, the sense of romantic tension and the fervor of her love notwithstanding, the exuberance and shoutalong choruses of Thirstier can seem repetitive when compared to the textures of her best work. At a moment when Beabadoobee, Snail Mail and other young women are revisiting that era with more panache, Scott could aim higher. That said, “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Heart” is a rousing and sweet love song, “calling for a hitchin’” to her fiancée with a cute low-budget pandemic video. “Hug From a Dinosaur” and the title track celebrate love for her fiancée with warmth and lust. Scott has always written about her own life: being an adoptee, searching for her biological mother, her childhood in the church, coming out. So it is no surprise that “Big Leap,” Thirstier’s quietest song, is a devastating true story, this one about her father falling off a roof and being paralyzed.
In 2014, OurVinyl released a three-song EP of solo live highlights from TORRES, including “Mother Earth, Father God” and “Moon and Back.” The same year, Torres shared a Record Store Day single with Motel Beds, featuring Kelley Deal (ex-Breeders). In the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown of 2020, Scott put out several standalone digital tracks, including a brittle, thudding cover of Portishead’s “Wandering Star.”