Becca Mancari fights for their existence with an expanded pop palette
On "Over and Over," the first single released from Becca Mancari's Left Hand, they relive an important, early phase as a queer and gender expansive person: They call back to the youthful disregard and fleeting bravado felt after they escaped the rejection of the religious world in which they were raised, found a new home in chosen family and an uninhibited way of presenting themselves. "There is something to the feeling / Head hanging out of the window / Being OK that we don't know," they insist breezily. "And we can have it like we used to / Over and over and over and over again."
That time in Mancari's life coincided with the start of their career as a Nashville singer-songwriter, which presented its own constraints. In that realm, they quickly learned that sharp lyric writing, brisk storytelling and clever wordplay are celebrated above most other creative achievements, and production is treated as the job of an entirely separate set of professionals, usually men. They debuted with the rustling, arid folk-rock of 2017's Good Woman, then drifted toward avant-pop fluidity with The Greatest Part. With longtime collaborator Juan Solorzano, Mancari cast off restrictions and finally produced themselves on Left Hand, creating their most expansive work yet.
Mancari wasn't content to simply put word to melody this time. Instead, they play with sound in evocative ways, incorporating styles that are blurred at the edges or soft at the center: bedroom pop, trip-hop, soft rock, chillwave, quiet storm, even stream-of-consciousness speech that verges on guided meditation. Some tracks unfold like exquisite maelstroms or surreal dreams, their rhythm sections moving erratically, dappled in wayward electronic and symphonic textures, but even linear compositions ripple with delicate disruptions. Mancari positions themselves in the eye of those storms, communicating emotional truths with startling clarity.
Brittany Howard, briefly Mancari's band mate in the folk trio Bermuda Triangle, was an ideal partner in the creation of "Don't Even Worry." Its ominous chord changes and propulsive groove disappear into, then reappear from the verses' capricious minimalism, bass licks scurrying through like spiders, rapid string crescendos crashing like ocean waves. Next to Howard's vocal daredeviltry, grotesquely deepened by effects at times, Mancari's voice sounds small, but plays a steadying role, beckoning to a friend in overwhelmed retreat.
"I look at Brittany as my friend," Mancari says of the song's profound sense of concern, "and I say, 'I know you're tired of being a strong, Black woman in the South.' So this is a song for people like us: Southern, queer, people of color who literally are on the front lines, fighting for their very existence."
Mancari now places questions at the heart of their songwriting. They probe, inquire, check for shared understanding and demonstrate that they don't have the luxury of counting on stability — they know better than to rely on what's supposedly certain and reinforced as orthodoxy.
During "Don't Close Your Eyes," they're intent on gently awakening others to a more life-giving existence, but unwilling to force it on anyone. "Are you ready?" they nudge. The title track, an audio collage of murmured ruminations and distant, siren-like refrains over a skeletal, mutating beat, unfurls a mantra: "I don't want to be just trapped inside myself anymore / I don't want to just pretend anymore / I want to live / I want you to live, too." Mancari continually checks in, making sure their audience receives the message. Even when they delve into how precarious their own survival has been ("It's Too Late"), they don't presume that everyone gets it: "I almost drove off the road that night / Did you know I almost did it so many times?"
The way Mancari writes about family is particularly devastating. Though "Homesick Honeybee" opens with a warm voicemail from their grandpop, from whom they've found acceptance, the rest of the song depicts how lonely it is to be cut off by those who've withdrawn their love. "I Needed You" starts out as a spare, acoustic tune, then grows crowded with cursive strings, furtive woodwinds and strange constellations of effects. "I wish I would have met you when you were 19," they sing in an imagined conversation with their mother. "I think you would have liked me." They interrogate their abandonment, but also seek better understanding of a parent who's an enigma to them. Even the undulating love song "Mexican Queen" acknowledges that Mancari and their partner have to cling harder to the life they're building together, knowing that their parents may never come around.
There's a subtle but telling tension during "Eternity," a song devoted to romantic pleasure that indulges in gallantly soft-core sweet talk and plush harmonies worthy of the Carpenters. Even as Mancari surrenders to their feelings, they don't lose sight of what queer love is up against: "Haven't we earned a love story?" The way they ask the question suggests that, in this case, they want us to know they're sure of the answer.
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