Primal Heart|Kimbra (2018)
Produced by Kimbra & John Congleton
In the realm of popular art, there is a talent: fame ratio, meaning there are artists whose level of fame is inflated when compared to their actual ability. In reverse, as is the case with Kimbra, there are artists whose level of talent is astronomical, but due to the ebb and flow of studio trends, they never reach the level of fame they deserve. This is Kimbra’s third studio album but you probably already know her. It won’t be from her solo work but from her duet with Gotye “Somebody That I Used to Know.” I’ve been listening to her since around 2011 when I stumbled across music videos on Vimeo for her first album, which was only out in New Zealand at the time. Like the other artists I’ve reviewed, Weyes Blood and Toro y Moi, her music is richly nostalgic yet progressive. It takes sounds we know and moves them forward into a new space. Her third album, Primal Heart, was released in 2018 and continues a trend of eclectic tones and themes.
Primal Heart is an intensely contemplative album, as Kimbra has entered a period where she is paring down the production of her albums and live performances. She’s been using a preprogrammed rig with beats, and she mixes and remixes, with two accompanying performers typically on keyboard and guitar. The core of her work are these electronic beats woven into increasingly complex yet familiar soundscapes. Kimbra wears her inspirations of her sleeve, often citing the work of Aaliyah, Prince, and Stevie Wonder, with lots of 1990s R&B thrown in. You can hear that in her work, but she always manages to add a twist that surprises the listener, not comfortable in just aping her idols.
Near the end of the album, we’re hit with a track that stands out from the rest, “Version of Me,” a quiet lament about personal demons and a plea to an unnamed friend or lover who has left as a result of the singer’s actions.
“‘Cause I’m damned if I do
And I’m damned if I don’t
Every time I swear I will
You say that I won’t
But there’s a better version of me
Stay for the person I’ll be”
During the song, she expresses frustration about how her art interferes in her relationship. Kimbra has always had a confessional vein running through her work, and the lyrics follow that her relationships have been harmed because of how brutally honest she has been about her personal life in songs that get released to the public. Her thought pattern is pulled between wanting to be an honest, organic songwriter but then losing the intimacy and trust with her partner.
“Next time I’ll be kinder with you
There’s just this habit that I have
I throw my words around like fire
They catch on your good heart and your peace of mind
Next time I’ll be kinder.”
While this song comes at the end, I believe it’s an essential piece to understand the album as a whole. There is a defiance and high energy throughout most of the tracks, but this softer piece is a great way to close out the whole thing, asking us to think about what has come before. To counter “Version of Me,” you have a song like “Everybody Knows,” which is the voice of a person who has been exploited at some point in their life and career. Kimbra is very actively on Tumblr and spoke about this track, in particular, stating that, “I drew on a lot of things when writing the song ‘Everybody Knows’ but it would be untrue to say there was no reference to times in my life where I have felt reduced and disrespected by the actions of men.”
“Everybody knows about what you do
Everybody saw and sold the truth
I was young and gullible, but baby, I grew
Now the whole world’s watching you.”
The song is about a confrontation of experiences you might instead let fade away, but how that head-on approach can some times empower an individual. So often, influential people who exploit depend on the silence of their victims to enable their actions. When an abuser has the light of day shined down on they it has a good chance of exposing them and making the complicit and the silent accountable to speak out. Victims can also find solidarity in each other while seeking to define themselves beyond being an abused person.
“See, I ain’t gonna lie but I ain’t gonna hold back
Or try to deny you turned a damn good heart black
I got a little box, yeah, that I’m gonna take back
Don’t make your promises, ’cause I’m finished with all that.”
The track “Human” addresses the difficulty of managing a personal and public persona. Kimbra explained on Tumblr that she’s struggled with getting lost in that public persona, and this has shaped her behavior in inauthentic ways. The song is about realigning herself with her truths as an artist and a person, finding a way to have a professional presentation but not allowing that identity to become all-consuming.
I know what I know, what I know, what I know, what I know
Hey, not many things I know, but I know what I know, and I’ll grow
There was a time when I was low, so low, so low
But that’s the time when I had to show
I got a heart that’s primal
‘Cause yeah, I need your love for my survival
Life’s got me on trial
I confess I’ve been messed up in denial
The thing that might turn a listener off from Kimbra is that her sound can by highly eclectic, though I think this is her most listener-friendly album to date. She said in interviews she expressly set out to make an album with a pop sound, centered around very contemplative lyrics. If the recent Kesha album was something you enjoyed, then I think there is a lot here in Primal Heart that touches on the same themes. Additionally, if you are wanting a chill 90s soundscape for long summer drives this album hits that spot.