Jonah Bromwich is more in favor of the alliterative phrase, “loquacious lush.”
R&B singer Elle Varner has mastered a tricky combination of old-fashioned romanticism and new-school playfulness. On her recent mixtape Conversational Lush, the RCA freshman establishes a winning persona, injecting large doses of her personality into tracks that are clearly structured by someone who knows how to write songs.
Varner starts the mixtape off in a deceptively absurd fashion. The first song, “WTF” tells the story of a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, but rather than go the Daniel Powter route, she chooses detailed, funny situations, ones that can’t help but to make her and the listener laugh together. Even as the situations get more and more ridiculous and extravagant, the song’s structure and Varner’s capable voice keep everything in check, so that it takes a couple of listens to realize how truly offbeat the song is.
Establishing such likeable footing is crucial. Even the more generic tracks hold hints of the large personality we saw revealed early on. “Do You Want To” is a song about getting to know a man well enough to know that his threats don’t carry any weight. Elle’s self-posession here could come off grating, but because we know she has a sense of humor, we’re solidly on her side.
Her lyrics too are surprisingly mature, showing a level of depth that’s rare in an artist this young (she turns 23 in February). The sympathetic addressee of the first verse of “Runaway” “clicks her black heels three times but…never gets home” — unable to stop herself from ending up in a stranger’s bed, even when she knows it’s probably not the best of decisions. (If you imagine, as I did, the guy in these situations being the sort represented by Abel Tesfaye, the idea becomes a lot more worrisome.)
Elle herself takes center role on “Ghosts,” wishing that she could completely disappear because she has such a hard time controlling her instincts. It’s melodramatic stuff, but Elle is so candid as to make it work, and if you’re not looking for any kind of emotion, you should look into a different genre.
It’s hard to sing about insecurity without sounding whiny and Elle occasionally falls into that trap. “So Fly” is a love-myself anthem in the same vein as India Arie’s “Video” and though it must be hard to write this kind of song, there’s nothing here to make Elle stand out, other than some awkward rhymes about chest and breasts. Admittedly, I’m not the target audience here (read: male), and there are other, less forgivable mistakes to avoid on the tape; rapping over “IZZO” is not a good look if you can’t rap and it’s here that Elle’s pride in her talent is irritating. After wasting a couple of minutes rapping, she talks about how easy it is, with the misguided ego that we actually see in far too many rappers now. It’s an unfortunately lost truism that singers should sing.
But for the most part, these missteps are avoided as Elle gracefully glides through a short suite of downtempo R&B songs. The production here is standard, but Elle’s sense of humor and an unexpectedly mature point of view, create something that’s more dynamic than the sum of its parts. There’s nothing boring here and even the worthless songs are done so quickly that you’re left with nearly nothing negative. Instead, you get a clear picture of an intelligent, fun girl who’s clearly at home writing and singing some pretty damn good songs.
MP3: Elle Varner-Conversational Lush (Left-Click)