Marika Hackman has an oral fixation. Nearly every song on her new album, “I’m Not Your Man,” references tongues, kissing, eating, talking, smoking, sucking. Her own mouth is a source of anxiety and power: it releases mousy whispers and torrential gales of harmony, delicate turns of phrase and eye-rolling cliches. These contradictions and nuances make you hang onto every syllable, whether bleary or crisp; they amount into one of the most gorgeously confounding records this year.
“I’m Not Your Man” is Hackman’s second record, and the first with the indie powerhouse label Sub Pop. So did she sell out for her midlevel overlords? Maybe a tad. There are some defiantly huge pop hooks on here, the biggest and best of which appears on “My Lover Cindy.” The song chugs along with Motown sha-la-las and breezy guitarwork, as Hackman belts a cool, edgy, empowering kiss-off anthem tailor-made for a “Pretty Little Liars” end credit sequence or an H&M afternoon:
“I’m a greedy pig / and I’m gonna get my fill / I’m gonna keep my eyes on the prize and I’ll suck you dry I will.”
The song is fun enough at first, but when you arrive at what you think is going to be another rousing, flirty chorus, she pulls the rug out:
“But I’m a lousy lover / Even if I try / I can go for a couple of weeks and the feelings calcify.”
Those snug guitars have disappeared, and her voice, no longer double-tracked, comes across stark and wounded. In a blink, she’s receded into brutal desolation. And when the snare drums eventually build back up and the original chorus returns, she no longer sounds domineering, but wearily resigned to her gluttony.
These bait-and-switch moments happen repeatedly throughout “I’m Not Your Man.” Hackman’s comfort zone is to be uncomfortable: every time you pin down her emotional core, she flips the sentiment. She wants good vibrations but not good intentions—until it’s the other way around. She “loves your mouth” but hates her own. Just when she finds love, she no longer wants it.
The music and instrumentation reflect these prickly dualities. She flits in and out of major and minor settings, especially on the unmoored fever dream “Round We Go.” She’ll settle into a placid groove before sabotaging it with a blaze of off kilter cymbals and distortion. Sometimes you have to strain to hear her voice over the guitars; sometimes you have to strain to even realize there are immaculate string and horn arrangements.
The album’s hazy mystique, and so much more about it, reek of the original Sub Pop God, Kurt Cobain. It could be the long, stringy, sandy hair or the sweaters-and-striped tees getup; maybe the androgyny or their foreboding eyes. It’s also the listlessness that bubbles into rage; the scratchy 3 a.m. guitar work; the keening, smarter-than-you-think pop melodies. You don’t have to squint to follow the line from Nirvana’s “Polly” to “Gina’s World”—they’re violent, shockingly intimate, gorgeous narratives that center on a muse and something gone horribly wrong.
Hackman returns to the twinned pair of love and violence again and again, treating them with diffidence and allure. On “Good Intentions,” she commits fratricide with a shrug, and then watches blankly as her sister returns the favor. On “Cigarette,” she and her lover take turns grabbing each others tongues, lighting them on fire, and then kissing. These lyrics make “I’m Not Your Man” a horror-tinged, visceral listening experience—most shiveringly with her line, “I’d like to roll around your tongue / cut like a bicycle spoke.” Is it a come-on or a threat? Her mic is turned so high that you hear exactly when she closes her parched lips and her tongue hits the top of her mouth; you can practically feel her saliva in your ear.
It’s hard to tell when she’s being sincerely desperate, or just taking the piss out of her audience. Is she flippant or ironic? Is her level of confidence closer to “My Lover’s Cindy’s” chorus one or two? Luckily, she never has to answer. Feeling anything is extreme is better than nothing at all.