On her sparse and riveting second album, the singer-songwriter examines the personal cost of embracing difficult emotional truths. 

Sophie Payten needed a break. In 2017, while still deep in medical exams, she released her debut album Reservoir under the stage name Gordi and fell for another woman virtually at once, right as Australia was landing on a verdict for same-sex marriage. A tumultuous year like that can induce burnout and numbness as easily as it can energize. Payten camped out in her home of Canowindra with two engineers from the first album’s sessions (Bon Iver co-producers Zach Hanson and Chris Messina) for a month of recording. The focus on intimacy makes Our Two Skins a stronger record than her first, with a clearer voice.

Payten and her co-producers recorded with only a handful of instruments, and compared to Reservoir, the results are much cleaner. Opener “Aeroplane Bathroom” is a piano ballad stark enough to hold its own against modern classics “Liability” and “Cellophane,” with raw emotion in place of Lorde’s wordplay or FKA twigs’ ethereality. Written in 20 minutes, Payten literally situated in the 24-inch confines of a plane lavatory, “Bathroom” is a different kind of panic attack than the usual heaving-through-a-paper-bag depiction—more a shutdown from sensory overload. The rest of the album is similarly intimate, and while “Unready” and “Sandwiches” have brighter alternate mixes (John Congleton helms a version of “Unready” with the crunch of modern alt-pop), even those feel more organic than the several sample packs’ worth of layering that characterized Reservoir’s production.

The lyrics prove the most thrilling development, using earthy imagery to convey human emotions (“a flooding rain and endless wave/and the warmth of our two skins,” an early single titled “Volcanic,” “harvesting the sorrow of this land”). These songs depict feelings too vast for lyrics to convey, to the point where not even nature can contain them. The careful arrangements set Payten further apart: Influence Justin Vernon would put dozens of saxophones over the piano accelerando that closes “Volcanic,” but this song tops out at a brushed drum kit and a handful of sound effects. “Free Association” even closes with a slide guitar solo that hints at a move into alt-country.

Payten’s writing is strong enough that she pulls off worthwhile takes on familiar themes. A straightforward love song like “Extraordinary Life” could be cloying on its own, but the whimsical verses are just the right amount of verbose, sounding smart instead of smug (“A wave refracted a divergence underneath/Toward directions that took gravity away from me”). “Life,” which works as a contrast to the more insular songs on the album, feels especially resonant now, nearly tragic—at some point in the future, her partner will get the life she deserves, but an extraordinary life is just not accessible right now. Any song that alludes to loneliness could feel accidentally prescient during a pandemic, but being queer can already feel so isolating that the theme resonates no matter what is going on in the outside world.

Her lyrics only falter when Payten sounds aware of her audience, becoming self-consciously clever: “My irrationality is like a nationality” threatens to kill “Hate the World” as soon as it starts. The neat rhymes and simplistic couplets often create a fascinating tension with the more complex subjects (that’s how “Aeroplane Bathroom” gets away with a “stranger/danger” rhyme), but a line like “There is something/There’s not nothing” on “Look Like You” undersells rather than understates an examination of queer representation.

Our Two Skins is not quite an outright celebration of authenticity and discovering yourself—if that was intended, the anxiety of “Aeroplane Bathroom” wouldn’t loom so heavily over the record. Is living “authentically,” as the phrase goes, worth the daily indignities that come with being different? There is no calm in that storm, and nothing worth romanticizing. Skins doesn’t try: Payten finds beauty anyway, never ignoring her fears, but remembering why the fear is worth braving at all.

Buy: Rough Trade

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