Renata Zeiguer - Picnic in the Dark Music Album Reviews

Renata Zeiguer - Picnic in the Dark Music Album Reviews
Having traded city life for the Catskills, the New York artist explores a more relaxed sound on the follow-up to 2018’s Old Ghost, finding new purpose in her soft-focus optimism.

After years of being stretched thin by the pressures of the city, every New York artist inevitably confronts the urge to resettle, speaking in hushed tones about the semi-mythical network of small cities and sleepy towns upstate, or greener pastures even further afield. Life in lockdown was the breaking point for many in the city’s fragmented underground, but long before COVID, Brooklynite songwriter Renata Zeiguer was nurturing an obsession with nature and plotting her escape. 

Old Ghost, her 2018 debut album, raced through a bright cacophony of zig-zagging guitars and tumbling percussion, presenting a mirror image of the heady, sprawling indie rock of Ava Luna and Landlady, underground heroes that Zeiguer collaborated with before striking out on her own. Pulsing at the heart of every song was a yearning to break free. “Enough is enough,” she cooed on anthemic opener “Wayside,” planting her feet in surf-friendly jazz chords before erupting into jagged, revelatory howls; “I know it’s not true,” she cried at the song’s closing chorus, fleeing from a faded mirage into an album teeming with hopeful visions of wild animals meeting beneath the moonlight and seedlings pushing through winter ice. Old Ghost unspooled into a series of affirmations, promising that the paranoid visions of today—the insects “burrowing in filthy mounds” on “Bug” and nightmares of a flood “drowning a space that will never fill” on “Dreambone”—would ultimately be nothing more than a rearview distraction. “I’ll be surfacing in no time,” she sang on “Below,” determined that self-actualization could be lurking right around the next chorus.

Zeiguer has since traded the crush of city life for softer living in the Catskills, and though she hasn’t let Old Ghost’s fever dreams cool entirely, on Picnic in the Dark she is comfortably settled into a quieter place, banishing old fears with hard-won grace. Gone are the frayed transitions and explosive drums that once poured fuel on her fiery songwriting. Instead, Zeiguer anchors her dreamy melodies to a steady pulse, counting herself into opener “Sunset Boulevard” with an airy two-bar drum-machine pattern before the familiar crunch of her guitar creeps in. On five of the album’s songs, she redeploys the same introductory beat until it evolves into a mantra-like motif. Cooling off from Old Ghost’s raging urgency, she allows musical ideas to dovetail naturally, each gently pulling the next into being instead of clambering over each other.

Zeiguer revels in the wide-open spaces that she’s carved out, filling them with the most compelling vocals she’s ever tracked. “Sunset Boulevard” slowly winds upwards through a spellbinding pre-chorus, bass and drums plodding dutifully along as her voice slides higher and higher. On the jaunty folk verses of “Child,” she flirts with the slightest country twang before the arrangement hollows out and leaves her multi-tracked voice soaring into ambient richness. Even on the album’s shortest track, the lounge-pop interlude “Mark the Date,” Zeiguer matches the song’s lilting surrealism with a playful deadpan: “Do you know what day it is?” Hearing her seize these songs so completely, unencumbered by a band roaring at her back, is a delight.

This spare, unhurried approach also helps illuminate the soft-focus optimism at the core of Zeiguer’s lyrics. On Old Ghost’s closer, “Gravity,” she luxuriated in her own power, singing, “I have this feeling that I’m never gonna lose.” On Picnic in the Dark, she finds new purpose in beaming that wisdom outwards. “Heaven and hell are a place in your mind,” she sighs on “Avalanche,” waving away fears of damnation and encouraging a leap of faith. “Eloise,” another character sketch, takes a sterner approach, extending a hand but acknowledging, “I know you’re not gonna try unless you want,” with the knowing tone of someone who’s grudgingly come to accept the necessity of showing up for yourself, no matter how unappealing the task may be.

Picnic in the Dark threatens to leave some of Zeiguer’s long-time followers out in the cold. Those searching for the crashing, tropical dream pop of her past won’t find it here—her focus on documenting the uneasy transformations that have taken hold since taking her permanent sabbatical from New York City has yielded nothing with the bracing anthemics of “Wayside” or the guttural soloing and full-band histrionics of “Neck of the Moon.” The only contender, “Whack-a-Mole,” never quite finds its footing; the shaky metaphor for an elusive lover falls flat amid an arrangement that neither lifts off or settles down. It’s understandable to yearn for a touch of the old chaos. But in downshifting from the always-on New York grind, Zeiguer triumphs on Picnic in the Dark by seeking a different kind of thrill, unburdening herself for a shot at true inner peace.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Renata Zeiguer - Picnic in the Dark Music Album Reviews Renata Zeiguer - Picnic in the Dark Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on April 15, 2022 Rating: 5