Having debuted in 2013 with the acoustic Fates, and having gradually reinforced her ethereal sound with keyboards and electronics on subsequent releases, Johanna Warren's sixth album, Lessons for Mutants, essentially picks up where 2020's Chaotic Good left off, with a mix of thoughtful folk and more forward-leaning rock textures. (Lessons for Mutants was mostly recorded live to two-inch tape with a band.) Perhaps further influencing the album's disposition was Warren's work in the interim on a stage musical, a version of Euripides' The Bacchae that she composed with lyricist J. Landon Marcus. Having said that, Warren has long had a theatrical, lyrical quality to some of her melodies. Here, those stagier characteristics emerge on songs like the suspenseful closing piano ballad "Involvolus" and midpoint track "Tooth for a Tooth," a resigned entry with soft-jazz combo backing suitable for a spotlighted nightclub stage ("Sometimes I can remember the good times/Sometimes it's easier to forget"). In marked contrast, however, are tracks including the surprising hard rocker "Piscean Lover," whose grungy guitars and athletic drums do much of the talking alongside lyrics that make oblique reference to Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" (which references a Pisces in its opening line). It's followed by "Oaths," a power ballad of sorts with rock drums and constant fluttering piano. Later, the Alanis-esque, should-we-breakup song ":/" grumbles over muted guitar distortion for its brief, under-two-minute playing time. Meanwhile, other tracks traverse psychedelic folk (the spooky "Lessons for Mutants"), bouncy, driving indie pop ("I'd Be Orange"), and retro folk-rock ("Hi Res") as part of stylistically uneven, unsettled set, though one never loses the sense that Warren is presenting a central, ill-fated-relationship narrative. If that's the point, the Orpheus-referencing "Involvolus" drops the curtain with a reminder that Orpheus ultimately looks back over his shoulder, sending Eurydice to the underworld, just like Hades knew he would.
Lessons for Mutants Review
by Marcy Donelson