By Melanie Broussalian-
King Princess makes her grand return with her long-awaited sophomore effort, Hold On Baby. Under her moniker, songwriter and producer Mikaela Straus has created some of her most earnest work yet. Whereas her debut album, Cheap Queen, was the soundtrack to debaucherously late nights at the height of her youth, Hold On Baby feels more like the morning after: a more delicate, and even slightly wounded, self-reflection on the damage you caused in the haze of the night prior. In a conversation with interview wizard Zane Lowe, Straus describes her personal approach to the record not as a heartbreak with another person but with herself, and the struggle of “not liking myself.” This is easily the most prevalent theme throughout the album, starting most obviously with the opening track “I Hate Myself, I Wanna Party,” an intimate portrait of someone stuck in the mundanities of life that ultimately reaches a screaming climax with the repeated “I don’t wanna live like that.”
Sonically, Hold On Baby finds its roots firmly planted in indie rock, with Straus citing references to Fiona Apple, Kate Bush, Foo Fighters and No Doubt in her “The Hold On Baby Experience” playlist. The record finds Straus in her most consistent sonic landscape yet, especially compared to Cheap Queen, which oscillated between ’70s-inspired instrumentation and electro beat drops of the 2010s. This is a feat more so when considering the long list of music industry titans who have contributed to the album. Aaron Dessner, Ethan Gruska, Dave Hamelin and Mark Ronson, among others, each contribute their own signature without diluting or changing Straus’ ultimate vision. In fact, Straus approached different producers strategically with songs she knew would fit within their wheelhouses. The most heart-wrenching tracks were saved for Dessner and his patented light touch, while the angstier songs were reserved for Hamelin.
“For My Friends,” is a mid-album standout and the most “traditionally pop” song on the record. Even still, Straus’ attention to detail prevails with lush synths, tight drums and earnest lyrics to tie the song together. Not every song is a winner, though. Tracks like “Crowbar” and “Winter is Hopeful” tend to plod along and slow the momentum of the record down, not offering lyrically a huge difference in story or experience. “Little Bother” featuring Fousheé is a perfectly fine pop song but doesn’t offer much more than anything already in the indie-pop sphere.
The back half of the album really soars, starting with the synth-heavy, tongue-in-cheek “Too Bad.” “Change the Locks” is easily a cousin of Lorde’s sophomore album, Melodrama, but taken to new heights with varying vocal deliveries, ranging from the whisper to the screaming belt that convey the heartbreak of realizing a relationship no longer serves either party. Generally speaking, Straus is more confident in her vocal delivery on Hold On Baby, allowing her to access emotional depths she didn’t as easily tap into on Cheap Queen. The record finishes on “Let Us Die,” a grungy, distorted track—powered by the late, great Taylor Hawkins on drums—that references a Thelma-and-Louise-style demise of a relationship on a doomsday clock. While very much worth the wait, there are areas of Hold On Baby that could go further; then I remind myself Straus is merely 23 years old with a career (or two) in front of her. In any case, it’s good to finally have King Princess back in our ears.