In the quiet surrounding the pandemic, Madeline Kenney made sonic sketches in the basement studio she shared with her then-partner. She arranged phrases that called her—the sharp knife of a synth cutting a path along a blooming arpeggio, drums stuttering firm and tight. Working this way, she amassed a collection of songs she had no particular aims for. Some formed her 2021 EP Summer Quarter, others languished.
But in 2022, Kenney’s partner left suddenly and without warning, plunging her into the solitary act of untangling what happened. In the wake of her ensuing depression, she revisited these songs and found in them something prescient. She’d already laid the foundation for A New Reality Mind.
That her relationship’s end came without warning is only half true, though. The warnings were in the feelings and fears that inspired Kenney’s critically-acclaimed third album, Sucker’s Lunch (2020), which was co-produced by Jenn Wasner (Flock of Dimes) and centered around the idea of flinging oneself freely into the seemingly-assured destruction of new love, come what may.
If sonically Sucker’s Lunch was letting yourself be pulled into the warm bath of a good story, A New Reality Mind reflects the harsh light of truth coming to break the spell. But as sobering as morning light can be, there’s brilliance to it, too. To see in the clarity of day is a gift. A revolution. Rather than reckoning with love lost, the songs on A New Reality Mind grapple with the self that chose to fall. “I guess I only needed to look twice / Reflected in my attitude, my constant compromise,” Kenney sings on “Red Emotion,” the musical landscape screeching and gasping around her observations of how she made herself small to keep the dream of love alive.
These notions of sight and vision pervade the record as Kenney stands before the infinity mirror of selves she’s been to preserve bonds in her life. On “I Drew a Line,” Kenney contends with the stories she’s told herself to keep plodding along, and the way those stories shape her perceived reality. She invokes John Berger’s Ways of Seeing—“Everything around the image is part of its meaning,” we hear him say. “Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning.” Here, Kenney isn’t interested in shaming herself for being carried away by the fantasies of the heart, but rather in investigating the unavoidably human propensity to do so. “I, like everyone else, am muddling through my most ordinary disaster of a life,” she acknowledges, a sentiment which reverberates through album opener “Plain Boring Disaster.” “I don’t need to start again,” she sings at the song’s close. “But I can change when it ends.” We may all be doomed to repetitive, ordinary heartbreaks, Kenney realizes, but at least we can cultivate a capacity to witness our missteps and build new realities for ourselves.
This is Kenney’s most expansive work, while also her most solitary. Produced and recorded alone in her basement, these songs are manifestations of what it feels like to be transformed by pain. Textures collide and collude; sonic ornaments emerge and dissipate capriciously; saxophones soar untamed, as on the 80s pop elegy to self-sacrifice, “Reality Mind”. These songs beg you to dance, then pull the rug out from under you once you’ve caught the beat, leaving you dizzy like the whiplash of love’s end.
But in the propulsive power of A New Reality Mind, there’s also acceptance, self-forgiveness, and a willingness to move forward into life, with all its ways of making a sucker of you. “That way of living, I’m over it,” Kenney declares of the habits that hold her back on “Superficial Conversation”. “I do not need to be reminded of what I did,” she assures, the song opening wide and beaming, like a smile expanding to taste a new breath of air.