Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana is the latest recipient of my newest, weird-but-endearing-but-really-mostly-weird behavior: chastely avoiding the advance singles in favor of hearing the album in its entirety. If not for the NPR stream weakening my self-control, I likely would have waited until I picked up the vinyl at their record release show. It’s like Tim Tebow discovered indie rock. Whether this habit is stranger than my old routine of naming custom players in the EA Sports NHL video game series after members of my favorite bands is debatable—Johnny Temple manned the blue line for at least five years—but such tests of blind trust are more exciting to me than hearing an awaited album piecemeal through blog track debuts.
Most bands who've earned this badge of honor have built that trust on a long track record of excellence, i.e. Bottomless Pit and Joel R. L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, whose forthcoming LPs can safely write themselves into the upper echelons of my year-end list. Speedy Ortiz’s remarkably rapid ascent from solo bedroom project to the Allston basement circuit to Pitchfork/NY Times favorites offers no such security blanket. Major Arcana is their debut LP, provided that the bedroom-era The Death of Speedy Ortiz gets chalked up as their version of a hip-hop mix tape. My trust is based on their limited discography—two bedroom sketchbooks, a pair of worthy singles, and the wonderful Sports EP—and the faith that they’re locked into their upward trajectory. I’ve been burned by fealty before, as my near-mint copy of Neon Bible will dourly attest, and I’ll surely be burned again, but not enough to cease this behavior.
Not this time, fortunately. Major Arcana blows by the lofty projections I’d set, causing me to tear up stacks of charts and graphs in mock disgust. From Darl Fern’s harmonic bass line that opens “Pioneer Spine” to the spiraling cacophony that closes “MKVI,” Major Arcana provides striking combinations of detail and destruction, hooks and claws, empathy and scorn, smarts and snarks. Those pairings aren’t necessarily new for Speedy Ortiz, but it’s hard to think of anything prior that hits as hard as the horror-movie fake-out of “Gary,” lodges in the brain like “I see me and you in the tiger tank,” aims for the heart like the friendship of “No Below,” sharpens its daggers like “Pioneer Spine” (“I want the truth / Even if I gotta rip it from you”), snaps into focus like the anthemic charge of “Plough,” or elicits laughs like the Kenny Powers-biting “I’m getting my dick sucked on the regular” from “Fun.” The pacing steals almost every move from my mix-tape playbook, using the downward arc of “Casper (1995)” to segue into the balladic “No Below,” lodging the pop rush of “Fun” between the album’s two most vicious riffs, and not putting another song after the obvious last song on the album. (It’s an even worse offense if you pull this move, pre-encore, in concert.) That said, it never feels like a mix of their oft-discussed influences, a wise departure from Sports’ role-playing turns.
Major Arcana’s peak is the scorching and dynamic “Cash Cab.” The swaggering bass line and guitar feedback duel alone would have prompted highlighting, but it’s the transition from the break-up pain of its first half (“All the smart ones repress / They get amnesia, and now I want to forget / I loved someone who left me for dead”) to the renewed optimism of its second half (“I wanna be with somebody just like me / Someone who laughs at a crashed car rental / Someone who hurts in an accident / Someone as scared of abandonment”). Make no mistake; Sadie Dupuis is playing an emotional shell game here. She prefaces the latter admission with “Here comes another empty threat,” casts doubt on whether the repeat of “Somebody just like me” is romantic or desperate, and essentially pulls out the rug with the final line “I’ll do all this if you pay me.” But such contradictory sleights of hand don’t detract from the resonance of the song’s best line “And all I’ll ever do is untie all your knots, dissolve all your thoughts.” Like the rest of Major Arcana, “Cash Cab” isn’t easily resolved, and is all the better for it.
What I can easily resolve is the big picture shift that occurred with Major Arcana: Speedy Ortiz found its identity. That’s a remarkable achievement for two short years, but from the songwriting to the performances, Major Arcana is assured. It’s nothing against what came before Major Arcana—if only all bands offered the coming-of-age narrative of Sports, “Cutco,” and “Taylor Swift”—but I’m definitely excited to see what Speedy Ortiz does with their identity now that they’ve nailed it down.
(In return for Speedy Ortiz rewarding my trust, I vowed to write an entire review without mentioning Pavement, Polvo, Unwound, Helium, Archers of Loaf, Versus, Liz Phair, Sebadoh, or Chavez—oh.)