Even at 32, Regina Spektor feels like a new kid on the block, an unpredictable talent who manages to sing sweeping piano ballads while making seal noises and beatboxing. In fact Spektor has been releasing music for more than 11 years, long enough that on her latest record, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, she revisits material that appeared on her second album, Songs. It's symbolic that the original song "Ne Me Quitte Pas," is given the plain English title "Don't Leave Me" on the new album; while not necessarily watering down her material, Spektor has gradually become less eclectic and more predictable over the course of her first five releases. Her previous record, 2009’s Far, worked hard to connect the eccentricity of her early work with a more easily digestible brand of piano pop, sometimes in the same song. She continues that trend on Cheap Seats, but it’s starting to feel a little forced.
On the track “Open,” for example, Spektor makes furious, guttural inhaling noises in the midst of an otherwise serious and mournful song, as if she were taking a break to attend a particularly difficult yoga class. On “Oh Marcello” she sings in a faux Italian accent and intersperses her own lyrics with those of the Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The song may be a reference to Brazilian songwriter Marcelo Nova, a collaborator of the Animals’ Eric Burdon, but it’s too exasperating to make you care.
There are times when Spektor’s odd impulses do her credit. “The Party” comes off as a happy parade, with Spektor buzzing her lips to imitate a marching brass band. The opener “Small Town Moon” is a fine blast out of the gate with frequently changing tempos, in which Spektor cheers that “today we’re younger than we’re even going to be.” On “All the Rowboats,” the album’s first single, Spektor wonders in a minor key if works of art in museums around the world aren’t actually being held prisoner. Her odd vocal inflections work here, as she adds her own imitation drums to the bookends of the song (which delighted David Letterman on Spektor’s recent Late Show appearance).
In most cases, however, the songs are neither unusual nor remotely memorable - they're just dull. “Firewood” begins lovely enough but devolves into something that Randy Newman and Sarah McLachlan would record for a Toy Story soundtrack. The biggest disappointment of the record, however, is “How,” a purely pedestrian piano ballad with lyrics that would be more appropriate on a Taylor Swift record. Spektor sings “Oh baby, how can I begin again/ How can I try to love someone new / Someone who isn’t you.” These lyrics seem especially saccharine coming from a singer who once sang of making love in porcupine gloves and killing herself via carbon monoxide while having sex.
The closing song, “Jessica,” captures your attention simply because of the lack of piano. Spektor sings quietly about a dying friend over a soft acoustic guitar. Clocking in at less than two minutes, it has the most heart of any song on this uneven record.
It’s possible that Spektor’s die-hard fans (and she certainly has them) will enjoy the peaks and valleys of Cheap Seats. It’s also possible that the songs will work better in snippet form as they make their way into TV shows and commercials (“All the Rowboats” appeared in an episode of Ringer almost as soon as it was released). But the schizophrenic nature of the record is impossible to ignore; rather than taking you in intriguing new directions as she once did, Spektor now just leaves you frustrated.