According to lead singer/guitarist Sadie Dupuis on the album’s Bandcamp page, a “twerp verse” is “when a musician guests on a track and says something totally outlandish – like a Lil Wayne verse – but it becomes the most crucial part. This record is our own twerp verse, for those instances when you desperately need to stand up and show your teeth.”
Stand up and show her teeth she does on Twerp Verse, the third album from her band Speedy Ortiz, and in totally outlandish ways too. This is raw feminist punk for the #MeToo era, bratty and loud and musically outrageous, with lyrics that confront the hideous everyday reality of being a woman in what is still very much a man’s man’s man’s world.
Its strongest and most disturbing depiction of our times is on “Villain”, about a creep who stalks a woman home on the bus. He wants to know if her “no” means “alright”, then looks past the answer anyway. “Did he earn the right?” Dupuis asks, and then her voice cracks a little, the weight of years of mental and physical abuse clearly on her mind, as she repeats the indisputable answer: “No way.”
Of course, there’s a self-confessed sexual abuser currently sitting in the White House, and if Dupuis doesn’t explicitly make the link between the “Villain” of her piece and the president, it’s certainly implied.
Indeed it was Trump who inspired the ferociousness of the songs on Twerp Verse, and encouraged Speedy Ortiz to stand up and show their teeth. The band had apparently readied a set of songs that were “strictly personal or lovey-dovey” in 2016, when the events of November that year suddenly caused them to change tack and pursue a more aggressive tone. It also seems to have increased the urgency to be understood by their fans; “Villain” is easily the most direct narrative that Dupuis has written and recorded to date. Which is one reason why it hits home so hard.
The other reason is the band itself, which is on thunderous fine form throughout. Although guitarist Devin McKnight, who brought so many indelible riffs to their last album Foil Deer, sadly left in 2016 to pursue a solo career, the new guitarist Andy Moholt (of Laser Background) is no chump and shows he can emit fascinating noise from his instrument at any given moment, in tandem with Dupuis’ own chops. Particularly impressive is the crescendo of madness at the end of “Sport Death” in which a guitar suddenly picks out a recognisable tune and dances merrily on top, and the triumphant riff that announces the loud chorus after the traditionally alt-rock quiet verse of “Backslidin’”. But scuzzy, loud, unpredictable, and exciting, the guitars are everywhere in the universe of this band.
What’s changed this time around is the introduction of synths – not going all-out like The New Pornographers, but subtly embellishing their 90s-rock-inspired raw energy with a sweetness that may or may not be ironic. On “I’m Blessed” they’re most evident – though you could still miss them if you weren’t paying attention, as they tend to squelch inoffensively in the background, frequently overtaken by the wall of guitars. Yet on “Moving In” they’re most inspired, swirling about each other and conjuring up the scene of a prom where the narrator dares to take a freshman to the dance because “he’s the type I wanna write a song about”, making you picture the mismatched yet momentarily perfect lovers swirling about each other in much the same fashion.
There is one other significant moment of sweetness that contrasts with and deepens the moments of anger that dominate both the album and our times. “You Hate the Title” is the poppiest the band’s ever been, a sunny tune with an instantly memorable set of chord changes and a singalong chorus. It ends the album perfectly, and is by far the most accessible they’ve ever been; you’ll want to play it again and again.
The rest of the album isn’t perfect – it limps a few times through arty-obscure passages in which Dupuis’ poetic lyrics and the band’s off-kilter playing are made to be too deliberately opaque. Indeed, as with their other releases, first-time listeners might be baffled, unable to discern anything enjoyable out of the mess of clashing mood changes (often within a song) and out-of-tune guitars.
This is the kind of album where you listen to it once and can only hear noisy chaos. But then you listen to it again… and can only hear noisy chaos. Finally, you listen to it again…
And, well, it might still sound an awful lot like noisy chaos. But in an often enthralling way.