Natalia Kills hardly sets herself up for success on her sophomore LP, Trouble, out today, on Cherrytree Records. In the roaring title track, she declares, “I’m trouble!” ad infinitum; on the clattering single “Problem,” she sings, “You know what they say about me — that girl is a problem”; on the dark, leering “Rabbit Hole,” she warns, “We’re the kids your mama warned you about.” Subtlety isn’t the end game here.
It’s not a coincidence that she’s playing this up on Trouble, since there was never a shot of her being seen as a good girl. Dark pop is Kills’ thing, and has been since the jump-off, but it didn’t always land on her jumbled debut, 2011′s Perfectionist, which had killer hooks (see the chorus on “Mirrors” for more) but invited too many unfavorable comparisons to her contemporaries.
That’s why it’s such a sheer delight to hear Kills firmly in her own lane on her sophomore LP, which feels like a better representation of her perspective than even the best moments of Perfectionist. It’s not affected, low on posturing, and there are moments of vulnerability that gleam like the very best lyrical storytelling. Trouble is a great pop record, straight up.
The magic here is twofold: Kills has grown as a songwriter, now mining her experiences (in particular, her tortured past) with a richness and authenticity that didn’t always ring true on her debut; meanwhile, executive production courtesy of Jeff Bhasker, who produced a handful of tracks on Perfectionist (including the gloomy dirge “Zombie”) and has worked with artists as diverse as fun., Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Beyonce lends the record a welcome cohesion. (Lana Del Rey producer Emile Haynie also drops by for a few songs.)
Ironically, the two tracks that kicked off the Trouble era — “Controversy” and “Problem” — are probably two of the weaker on the record, clattering and showy in a way that doesn’t align entirely with the more organic sound throughout. They work well as transitional pieces moving away from the electro vibe of the Perfectionist era, but here they’re not as strong as the other possibilities. The still-amazing “Saturday Night” is (I’d argue) the best song of Kills’ career, as evocative a paean to adolescent madness as any.
“Rabbit Hole” is sinister, skipping the hyperbole of a song like “Kill My Boyfriend” for something truer and therefore darker: “Cause I eat boys like a cannibal / Fuck hard, howl at the moon like an animal / Eat me, drink me, straight down the rabbit hole / White lines, white lines, straight down the rabbit hole,” she sings over Bhasker’s skittering beat. Similarly, the euphoric hook of “Television” betrays what a gloomy song it really is: “Nicotine and low life dreams / Have never felt so worn,” she groans.
“Marlboro Lights” is by a mile her best ballad, an old-fashioned piano number that’s achingly sincere, while “Devils Don’t Fly” builds up the production a little bit more but is no less affecting. (It’s hard not to feel something about a lyric as conceptually sharp as, “Everyone that holds my hand gets cut from all the thorns.” Yikes.)
There’s more instantly likable moments here, too: “Outta Time” is perfectly solid throwback ’60s girl-group swag, while “Rich Girl” is effortlessly catchy, sampling Hall & Oates to ingenious effect and laying it over a stomping beat. Not every song is as memorable as those, but it doesn’t matter. On Trouble, for the first time, she sincerely kills it.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: When Natalia stopped by our studio last month, I stressed to her (and her publicist from the label) that “Trouble” should be the next single, and I’ll maintain that stance: More so than the songs that hew closer to a dance or electro sound, the anthemic sound of the title track evokes fun. or Florence & The Machine. It’s a hit in the making.
Best Listened To: When prepping for a wild night out, with the ballads well-suited for the bleary morning after.
Full Disclosure: After Perfectionist and the disappointment of “Controversy” and “Problem,” I’d mostly given up on Kills; “Saturday Night” proves her mettle as a writer, and her songcraft is on full display here. Solo superstardom has eluded her so far, but if this one doesn’t hit, I suspect she can still probably make more money writing gloomy, dark pop hits for everyone else in the industry.
Idolator Score: 4/5
— Sam Lansky