“I think the indie rock world really feeds off trauma,” Jilian Medford said in press materials for her new album, SUCKER. “If you’re not going through something terrible, people are like, ‘What’s the story?’” Even if it becomes relatively clearer by the time of release, promoting it can be exhausting: Medford’s previous effort as IAN SWEET, the captivating and resonant Show Me How You Disappear, was written while she was in an outpatient therapy program for anxiety, and she found herself being pigeonholed as a “mental health advocate girlie” after it came out. But making that record saved a part of her, and her latest opens with an acknowledgment of the mortal sense of urgency that can come with writing music. “What if I die with this song in my head and I never get to sing it?” she wonders on ‘Bloody Knees’, enough times that the thought gains more weight than the relationship at it revolves around. When it could save one’s life, isn’t that, more than any single narrative or personality, the thing worth treasuring?
This may not be the mindset or intensity that drives the entirety of SUCKER, but it feels like the necessary starting point, a transition from one album to the next. It’s less about surviving through a crisis than the joy and catharsis of getting to sing about it. With a new sense of assurance and security, Medford foregoes some of the trappings of indie rock confessionalism by leaning into her pop sensibilities; at the same time, she strays from pop’s mainstreaming of growth and healing by proclaiming she’s “so far” from getting there on the title track. She’s still uniquely gifted at writing lyrically chaotic, self-destructive anthems – “I’ve been a mess/ Haven’t slept/ Started smoking again” – but it sounds more like she’s coming at them from the other side, self-aware enough to have fun and be a little dramatic about it. You could almost call it lighthearted.
Refreshing as they may be, though, it’s not the driving hooks and anthemic build-ups that provide the biggest release. ‘Comeback’, a song dedicated to her mother, who took care of her as she recovered from her mental health crisis, is quietly earnest, gliding through memories of childhood innocence and towards a striking realization: “Wish that I could bury it/ All this deadwеight, heartache, bad dreams, can’t sleep/ Losing strеak, now you’re losing me.” SUCKER is Medford reclaiming herself even as she sings about messing up, a point she homes in on by following up ‘Comeback’ with one of the punchiest and most thrilling pop songs on the LP, ‘Your Spit’. It’s “mostly about making out,” Medford has said, and the “mostly” makes itself felt both in the familiar dread creeping through her lyrics (“I’m afraid this could all go away”) and her playfully manipulated vocals.
SUCKER benefits from Medford’s more spontaneous and immediate songwriting approach, but it’s these little tweaks and emotional shifts that often make the record come alive. It never feels stagnant. The artist had to let go of feelings of self-doubt around her own work in sharing it with co-producers Alex Craig and Strange Ranger’s Isaac Eiger, who add texture and broaden its palette of influences. Coldplay remain an eternal reference point for Medford, and a large part of SUCKER feels specifically, lovingly indebted to A Rush of Blood to the Head, from its strange confidence to its haunting guitar work. But while she may have gone as far as to cover ‘Yellow’ and recreate its video back in 2021, this new album is much more intent on capturing the evolution of her own musical and emotional language, which songs like ‘Clean’ and ‘Hard’ reveal in their subtlest musical touches. “Every day’s the same/ I ran out of things to say,” she admits on ‘FIGHT’, but ‘Hard’ closes the album with a heart full of longing, of wanting nothing but a love interest to keep going until they gush out every single detail. “You said you’ve never felt more alive,” Medford sings, changing her cadence only slightly each time she repeats it. That’s the kind of thing you stay for.