Women have always been a band of contradictions. Blending sleek, tight songwriting with unpredictably experimental riffs. After every blissed out nugget of pure, feel-good pop, the band leads us down a darker, more uncertain road where their rock-leanings start to weigh heavy. On their self-titled debut, the band found itself having a harder time negotiating the space between these two worlds. While each track fit one way or the other, the album felt somewhat polarized and at odds with itself. On Public Strain, Women are more comfortable in their own skin. This sophomore release finds a much more mature and confident band fleshing out their sound and effortlessly collapsing the line between the experimental and the pop.
If their first record was a cursory exploration into the genre, Public Strain finishes what Women started. Here, each song is given time to gestate. From the languid, yet sonically ripe opener to the poetically optimistic closing track, each song feels like more of a complete statement. Where earlier tracks like “Cameras” or “Group Transport Hall” felt staunched by the band’s somewhat gratuitous brevity, songs here like “Heat Distraction” and “Locust Valley” are able to harness the band’s pop-sensibility while still fostering that wandering sense of discovery that makes the band flourish.
Public Strain also leaps ahead of the debut in its much more evolved sense of grandeur. Each song here sounds bigger, more resonant, and, most importantly, more emotionally charged than ever before. On “Venice Lockjaw”, the band shows itself not being afraid to be vulnerable and sincere. The gentle strum of the guitar, the understated beat, and the earnest but never mawkish vocals flow like water in this ballad. Each delicate little pluck of the strings feels like a drop of rain falling outside while someone lies in bed with you and tells you their deepest secrets. This is somewhat of a new territory for Women, one that they fit into beautifully. With this newfound sense of emotional intensity, the album feels more poetic and cinematic, and hits with much more impact.
There is one unfortunate flaw here, however. “Penal Colony” sits in the middle of this album like a dead weight. The repetitive, tedious beat, the half-baked melody, and the unimaginative sonic arrangement languish in this track, and to no good end. As Flagel croons “faces start to blend/meets a sudden end/ and you’re gone completely”, it feels less like a wistful, nihilistic meditation and more like a sad, pretentious cliché.
Having said that, Women have crafted an outstanding second album here. Public Strain is still very much loyal to the band’s signature sound, but further investigates what they are capable of. While the songwriting expands and wanders deeper into new territory here, the album ultimately feels tighter in scope and vision. Every rough edge from the debut is deftly smoothed out on Public Strain. As the wall between the traditional and the unpredictable slowly crumbles away here, Women show us that there is a very powerful and exciting space in between.