It’s been five years since Rise, Richey’s final major label studio album. That alone would make it notable, as this is the longest Richey has gone between projects. Throw in the fact that it’s produced by Giles Martin, the son of Sir George Martin who assisted in the production of last year’s Love, the brilliant re-imagination of the Beatles catalog, and it’s impossible not to have elevated expectations of Richey’s fifth studio album.
For the most part, Chinese Boxes delivers. The title cut sings of a man who’s “like Chinese boxes, one inside the other one.” That image is as easily applied to Richey’s career, who has never made the same album twice. The jangly guitars of her debut eventually became the sparse, despondent emptiness of Rise. What’s been consistent is her heartbreaking and vulnerable lyrics, which are always levied by a smirking self-deprecation that injects a dark humor along the way.
On Chinese Boxes, there is a new optimism shining through, as if Richey wiped away the cobwebs of the last five years and decided, as she sings in one song, not to “let another day go by.” There’s a biting snark to “Not a Love Like This”, where she recites a laundry list of all that she wants from the man of her dreams, then starkly contrasts it to the man who is letting her down in the chorus. There’s a pure poetry to “The Absence of Your Company”, where she confesses “I don’t have a point to prove, I don’t have a stand to make. I’m just trying to find my way…a place to be, in the absence of your company.”
The real joy of listening to Chinese Boxes is hearing Richey supported with the most inspired production that has ever surrounded her consistently excellent songs. Perhaps it’s too obvious to call it Beatlesque, but the reality is there are Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul flourishes throughout the record. It elevates Richey’s vocals, which were so muted and affected on Rise, but have a renewed energy here.
Richey’s been threatening for a long time for the title of most under-appreciated singer-songwriter of her generation, and the case is getting stronger that she is one of our strongest and most relentlessly creative artists. If you buy this album, there’s a good chance you’ll be in a group that numbers less than 5,000. But if she ever breaks through to bigger success, you’ll at least have bragging rights that you knew all along just how good she was.
Buy: Chinese Boxes