With her debut pop record, Varmints (Moshi Moshi/PIAS Recordings), classical composer Anna Meredith plays with ghosts to conjure the heartbeat of today. It’s a thoughtful record that doesn’t shy away from chaos or hide in theory, but uses its intellect to dissect the sense of wonder hiding behind loss.
Throughout Varmints, Meredith plays with expectations. “Last Rose” builds up to a fist-pumping anthem, with razor-cut strings and a pulsing organ accented by subtle beats and tones that recall a marimba or balafon. Meredith delivers lines like, “Her lovely companions are faded and gone… our friendships decay,” in a confident voice that doesn’t diminish the melancholy, but clearly sees the sadness in the rear view mirror. “Taken,” a highlight, has male and female voices playing with stasis on pitiless lyrics like, “What seemed a good idea has fast become a waste of time.” Harsh, distorted chords pop out of the darkness and surf over the deceptively placid surface. That blend of serrated distortion and bitten-off strings resurfaces on “Shill.” Its skeptical sense of melody keeps the audience at arm’s length and makes them want to lean in.
Elsewhere, instrumental tracks like “Blackfriars,” with its tiny violin cell that snaps everything into focus as the rest of the lush strings fall away, and “Honeyed Words,” which plays with the intersection between a cello and a synth drone, tease the listener with the expectation of expansiveness but stop short. That quality of fraying off without a hold to grab is key to their mysterious nature, but it never feels like a trick.
This beautifully jagged, mysterious record is hard to pin down in the best ways. Varmints is a perpetually evolving, unfolding series of snapshots, simultaneously showing the world in crisp relief and distorting it to draw the listener in to pay attention. Meredith’s debut paints a picture of day-to-day losses and compromise without ever wallowing in them or diminishing the feelings.