Aquatic Flowers, the fifth album from Nashville-based Tristen Gaspadarek, aka Tristen, spotlights the singer-songwriter’s proficient lyricism, mellifluous voice, and gift for crafting pop-inflected melodies, a further honing of the palette used on previous releases, including 2017’s enchanting Sneaker Waves.
The album launches with “Complex,” Andy Spore’s tasteful drums setting an upbeat, folksy tempo. “I want to be with you, but I’m so scared,” Tristen sings, addressing the way in which people are drawn to the exhilaration of romance while resisting the emotional exposure that often goes along with it. “Wrong with You” covers similar ground, the singer warning a possible lover that “the voice in my head speaks louder than / anything you could say.” The song’s cheery melody contrasts effectively with a universal portrait, how we habitually talk ourselves (and others) out of intimacy, threatened by the vulnerability that accompanies commitment.
On “I Need Your Love,” Tristen delivers one of the album’s catchier melodies, bringing to mind a cross between The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” “Athena” is perhaps the album’s standout track, a folk-rock gem driven and texturized by Buddy Hughen’s layered guitars (clean/rhythmic and reverb-y/melodic). As the piece unfolds, it adopts a trippy feel, reminiscent of Kurt Vile’s psychedelic folk on 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo.
As Springsteen used platitudes cynically on The Ghost of Tom Joad’s “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” so Tristen employs a popular truism encouragingly on “Story of Love.” “You can’t change the world / but you can change yourself,” she sings, offering the line as a recurrent touchstone or mantra, the song paying tribute to a relationship that has survived various challenges. With “Julian,” Tristen expands on “Story of Love,” exploring the benefits of self-awareness and psychological flexibility. “I’m not in control / I’m settling down,” she sings, referring specifically to the adventure of motherhood, but also, and more generally, to the merits of “letting go,” how accepting a certain level of powerlessness in one’s life can bring wisdom and clarity.
One of Aquatic Flowers’ moodier and more lyrically intriguing tracks, the album’s closer, “Say Goodnight,” overtly points to the singer wanting to sleep so as to avoid a disagreement with her partner. The lines “Let me fly away / a grain of sand into the sea / mouth of darkness,” however, coupled with the fuzzy ambience added to the track midway, point to the viability of a secondary and more disturbing interpretation: the singer welcoming death, perhaps via sleeping pills, her “Goodnight” tantamount to a final farewell.
With Aquatic Flowers, comparisons to Jenny Lewis (whose band Tristen performed with in 2015), Laura Veirs, and Aimee Mann, among others, are inevitable. Tristen, however, navigates her own unique mix of melodicism, pop soundscapes, world-weariness, and prevailing optimism (despite the possibly tragic tone of the final track). Aquatic Flowers will potentially appeal to a diverse audience, tunes that range from buoyant to dreamy, ideal for the early days of summer.