Wake Up Again highlights Eleni Mandell’s knack for penning hook-friendly songs and, as a vocalist, navigating subtle but significant melodic variations. Inspired in part by a songwriting class she taught in two California women’s prisons, Wake Up Again blends etheric ambience with Mandell’s earthy presence and marks the eclectic artist’s segue from hip popstress to archetypal chanteuse.
The album opens with “Circumstance,” inspired by two inmates, neither of whom accepted responsibility for their incarceration. The song spotlights a sultry blend of jazzy beats, pop melody, and slowcore/sadcore atmospherics. The track draws attention to Mandell’s supple voice, lyrics merging a deflective stance (“It wasn’t me who did those things / It was my circumstance”) with uber-romantic yearning (“If you set me free / I’ll live by the beach / And wash myself in the salty sea”). “Be Together” reminds me of an ebullient Madeleine Peyroux, velvety voice mingling with jangly instrumentation. “Just Herself” contrasts Mandell’s perky vocal and deceptively simple lyrics with reverb-y and ghostly textures, invoking a provocative range and mixture of tones.
“She’s a box in a box / She’s underneath the floor / She’s a curtain that went down / She’s shut behind the door,” Mandell sings on “Box in a Box,” tribute to an enigmatic woman who occurs as a cross between Mary Poppins and Emma Bovary. “Oh Mother” is a minimalist and country-inflected pearl, Mandell addressing the process involved in forgiving a tough parent, her hummable melody wafting above Ryan Feves’ buoyant bass and Kevin Fitzgerald’s steady percussion. Milo Jones offers a memorable guitar break that could’ve been plucked from a Tom Waits’ track circa Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs/Franks Wild Years, melodic chords bathed in chorus.
“Ghost of a Girl” is the most emotionally and compositionally sophisticated track on the album. As if drawing from vivid photographs, Mandell offers snapshots of a yellow dress, leather jacket, and wedding ring “that’s scratched and gold,” symbols of a past that was both gratifying and difficult. In this way, Mandell offers a flipbook of sorts: how time passes quickly, one’s plans invariably impacted by chance (positively and negatively). I’m reminded of Gretchen Peters’ “Arguing with Ghosts” (from last year’s Dancing with the Beast), an older woman reflecting on the passage of years. On one hand, she accepts the cards she was dealt; on the other, she grapples with remorse, loneliness, and the sense that life has been anticlimactic at best.
The album closes with the title song. “Was it my fate to make those mistakes? / If I had the chance would I, could I / Wake up again?” Mandell asks, reiterating that even a life replete with love and meaning inevitably includes regret.
Producer Sheldon Gomberg deserves kudos for crafting audial contexts that bolster Mandell’s formidable talents. While listening to Wake Up Again, I was frequently reminded of Daniel Lanois’ treatments on Time Out of Mind, a project that recast Dylan in a fresh and haunting context (possibly Dylan’s most intriguing album). Supported by sonics that draw selectively and restrainedly from the dream-pop palette, Mandell’s well-sculpted songs are immediately accessible, additionally offering images, declarations, and melodic movements that precipitate complex and lingering responses. Informed by the voices of American inmates — women who have been at least to some degree marginalized — Mandell’s project underscores her gift for finding universality in particular tales. Wake Up Again is a notably elegant release and so far, one of the more memorable releases of 2019.