You don’t intend to watch American Idol, really you don’t, but like millions of your lumpen brethren, you find yourself prostrate on the couch every week, gawking at the televised trainwreck. Simon, Paula, and Randy make their predictable assessments, but it’s the viewers who decide, by way of telephone and text messaging, the outcome of the competition. Call it mob rule or pure democracy or the hegemony of gay men and prepubescent girls, but it’s as fair an indication as any of our middlebrow, middle-American preferences. We want our idols to scrunch up their faces as they struggle to express their supersized emotions. We want our idols to cram in as many notes as the melody can sustain, to execute tricky trills and complicated runs, to overwhelm us with virtuosity. Subtlety, restraint, and ambiguity are hallmarks of the also-ran; American idols apotheosize the obvious.
Those in need of an antidote to Idol mania are advised to seek out Nolita, the latest album by Keren Ann Zeidel, a Frenchwoman of Javanese-Dutch-Russian-Israeli descent who performs under just her first and middle names. Where AI contestants bellow and caterwaul, Zeidel simply sings. Her voice is small and lithe and perfectly imperfect, a deadpan alto that cracks a little at the margins of its unexceptional range.
Nolita is Zeidel’s fourth full-length but only the second to be distributed in this country. Her previous album, Not Going Anywhere, was her first English-language venture and wasn’t even intended for official release, either here or in France, where Zeidel is semifamous. She changed her mind, and American critics contracted a serious case of amour fou. A gushing profile in the New Yorker followed a series of live shows in New York City; soon thereafter, Zeidel rented an apartment in Nolita, a neighborhood north of Little Italy, and began dividing her time between Paris and New York.
Nolita was recorded in both cities and bears their traces. Sung half in French and half in English, it’s the work of a committed expat, a dreamy, liminal space that’s always already elsewhere. “Utopia,” after all, means “no place,” and Nolita is more of a concept than a place anyway, a neighborhood carved from older, more established districts and distinguished (cynics might say “branded”) by a snazzy name. In an interview with the French-language edition of Elle, Zeidel explains that the album title is also meant to evoke the non-Lolita, or the transition from muse to artist, which she defines as “one who observes.” It’s a telling distinction, one that neatly encapsulates her songwriting ethos. Zeidel’s lyrics are both commonplace and enigmatic, a series of ordinary observations that accumulate meaning obliquely, transparent layer by transparent layer, like a Rembrandt painting or a Raymond Carver story.
The best songs on Nolita are about New York — or, more precisely, New York as described by a stranger infatuated with its polyglot magic and palimpsest past. With its harmonica and scraping violin, “Chelsea Burns” evokes the Velvet Underground’s New York — its grimy glamour reconstructed by someone born after Edie Sedgwick overdosed, after the billionaires chased the bohos to Brooklyn and points beyond, after the famous fire that still burns under the narrator’s feet. The seven-minute title track is at once narcotic and urgent, a concatenation of delicate guitar arpeggios and wistful strings. As the song builds, you begin to discern Zeidel’s breathing, so faint and regular at first that it dissolves into the programmed percussion. By the end of the song, she’s clearly panting; whether it’s meant to suggest pursuit or escape, desire or exhaustion, is unclear, and it probably doesn’t matter. She’s still not going anywhere, but you’d be a fool not to follow.