When critics talk about women being the future of rock music, they’re usually referring to indie rock. But women’s voices and feminine influences are also making a huge impact on alternative rock, the radio format, as we know it; see the latest releases from St. Vincent, Alice Merton, CHVRCHES, Lorde, and now, the newest entry from Elle King. What makes King unique? She’s taking many of her cues from the blues.
King began writing her sophomore album, Shake the Spirit, in the midst of her marriage falling apart (she said “I do” three weeks after meeting her ex, on Valentine’s Day). She kept writing right through their divorce, and as a result, several of the songs here reflect a cynicism about relationships. King picks up the mantle laid down by acts like the Black Keys and Jack White, favoring distortion-heavy guitars and bass line-forward tracks to create a sound that’s an updated rock take on lifting the soul of the blues. Her decidedly female gaze on the song’s subjects, however, put a twist on it that the genre hasn’t gotten nearly enough of since the ‘40s.
“Good Thing Gone,” ”Told You So,“ and “Runaway” all delve into a sense of disappointment after love gone wrong. In the album’s lead single, “Shame” plus “Baby Outlaw” and “Talk of the Town” explore another prevailing theme: being trouble, an outsider who lives outside the norms of femininity. “It Girl” really goes for an old blues trick, using double entendres as lyrics for a “clean dirty” song (“To be a hit / It’s all in the wrist / You could be the it girl / If you use a little spit girl”). It’s the sort of song Ma Rainey or Memphis Minnie would appreciate and deliver with a little more veracity — King keeps her distance from the track, saving her waling and commitment for other tracks on the album, “Sober” being a particular standout.
The album is virtually floating in musical references from a myriad of eras, from the growling delivery of Janis Joplin on “Little Bit of Lovin’” (the most brutal song about marriage) to the Beatles psychedelic phase explored in “Ram Jam.” One of the more interesting and layered tracks is “Naturally Pretty Girls.” It’s a co-write with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie (an unexpected pairing in any context) as well as the first song King has ever produced on her own. Gibbard’s fingerprints can be felt in the vocal arrangement as well as the snare drum plus bass guitar driven melody, a classic Death Cab orchestration. But in it King explores issues relating to her own body image and sense of self-worth, comparing herself to so-called “naturally pretty girls” ("It's rewarding to be beautiful / Nature wasn't kind to me"). It’s a jam with few but biting lyrics.
King works out her demons all over this album, invoking a fire and spirit that many of her contemporaries seem a little afraid to tap into. She’s not always on the right side of the message, pitting herself against other women, but she always reveals something of herself while she’s doing it. King seems hell-bent on saying that this is literally how women rock.