The distant chime of an ice cream truck. Glittery eye shadow. Childhood naivete. Welcome to the world of Lights, a planet where unicorns lap at silver rivers, first crushes are eight feet tall heroic giants with all the answers, and death is something that only happens to grown-ups. The Listening, cloaked in a mythical world of synths and dreamy keyboards that play hide-and-seek with the vocals, feels as invincible as its ethos. The entire record is an homage to forts and capes made out of blankets, a sort of fragile toy capable of shattering at the slightest mention of adulthood. Lost and not a little precocious, the entire record rests on the presumption that you will put on your thinking cap and use your imagination for the earnest show-and-tell and story time of the songs; at snack time, I’d eat the cookies but probably stay away from the Kool-Aid. Nap time to follow.
Though there are a few missing pieces akin to the blank features on Valerie Poxleitner’s face, these very grand, Swiss-cheese statements aren’t meant to find their missing counterparts within, but instead, adhere to the listener’s inner child, a sort of “Hey, what kid didn’t get made fun of?” approach that succeeds only because the lyrics are just vague enough to fit myriad experiences. Poxleitner’s vocals, hardly polemical, almost strain with the endurance to sound more like a twelve year old; unpolished, scratchy, and heavy on the nasals, it’s as if that desire to become a “little girl / without the weight of the world” isn’t just a heartfelt wish, but the driving credo behind The Listening’s kiddy manifesto. From whimsy to the scorn spurned by an unresponsive crush (“Why’d you have to go and turn to ice?”), to the muddled rebounds of second chances (“Second Go”) and the Saturday night video game marathon of “Quiet,” where she’s content to resign the disc to “no tragedy, no poetry / just staring at the sky.” She’s young, she’s super in love, guys, and that’s where she’s supposed to be.
But the transience is broken by “Pretend,” the album’s central conceit shattered by the reprise, the disc’s only mature track, a bare, piano solo where the lyrics sound downright depressing and voice less nostalgic desire than festering regret. “It would be nice to start over again / before we were men,” she remarks. In that case, just head back to track one. Ice cream trucks, glitter, unicorns, streamers on the handlebars of a pink bicycle; The Listening is a woman in a perpetual girl’s world. No boys allowed.