It’s shaping up to be a surprising year for music, and nothing has been a more pleasant surprise than Allison Weiss’s Say What You Mean. After years of online buzz, a self-released LP, a stint in Lou Reed’s touring band, and tours of her own, the album can’t help but feel like a coronation; it’s her first album for reputed label No Sleep Records. If there was ever a time to cash in the chips and make something big, it’s now.
Thankfully, Weiss didn’t just make something big, she made one of the best albums so far of the year. That’s the short way of saying she made an album that’s energetic, catchy as all get out, heartfelt, skillfully made, fun, and consistent. Say What You Mean doesn’t concern itself with transcendental meaning or high concepts to blow you away–it’s just impeccably great, and rewarding in new ways with every listen. Even from the album opener and first released song “Making It Up”, one of the appealing things about Weiss was that she doesn’t neatly fall into Spot the Influence.
True to singer-songwriter roots, Weiss makes the music she wants to make, and she doesn’t fall into a narrow category with it. A broad classification would label her somewhere between indie rock and pop-punk, but that still feels like it’s missing something. Underneath the garage rock guitars, indie production, and punky energy, Say What You Mean is a set of 10 sharply crafted pop songs that get stuck in your head for days on end. And while Weiss sticks with her own sound, she dabbles in different sub-genres across the record. “Making It Up” smacks of Weezer-y power pop, whereas “I Was an Island” has an amped-up doo-wop vibe, to The Strokes’ crunch of “Hole in Your Heart”, and the rockabilly bounce to “How To Be Alone”‘s two-chord riff and rapid-fire drum beat. Say What You Mean strikes a great balance of variety and cohesion.
That cohesion and a relatively brief 34 minute runtime make picking highlights somewhat challenging. Track to track favorites change based on mood, but the mid-album trio of “How To Be Alone”, “Don’t Go”, and “Wait For Me” is the most varied and consistently enjoyable stretch. “How To Be Alone” is outright danceable in it’s tom-heavy beat and twangy riff, and “Don’t Go” features Weiss at her most freewheeling (not to mention an arresting final chorus). After two of the most upbeat moments on the album comes “Wait For Me”, a string and acoustic guitar ballad that pushes Weiss’s vulnerability to the forefront, and is surprisingly affecting.
Don’t let the shiny, poppy songs throw you off; Say What You Mean is a emotionally raw album. Stripped of the catchy guitar and synth riffs, “Tell me you remember/the way you used to call me your own/Tell me that I’m making it up/And I’ll leave you alone” freaking hurts, and that’s only on the first song. The album’s lyrics center around romantic struggle and heartbreak, and she has been compared to Taylor Swift, a comparison unfair to Weiss. Swift’s songs for good and bad, always feel like carefully narrated stories; Weiss doesn’t do as much censoring. Over the course of the album, you hear her plead, you hear her determined, you hear her desperate, and you realize that you’re rooting for her because you’ve been there, too.
The last two cuts on Say What You Mean–the title track and “I’ll Be Okay”, bluster less than the rest of the album. “Say What You Mean” sticks the landing as a power-pop ballad, whereas “I’ll Be Okay” is a slow building, acoustic to full band and textured guitar epic that was made to close shows. They’re a great mirror to the one-two opening of “Making It Up” and “One Way Love”, and show some potential avenues for Weiss to pursue on future albums.
And with Weiss, people are eager to hear more. Say What You Mean does a lot, and more importantly does it well. The arrangements are meticulous, the hooks are powerful, and the album has a rush to it that never burns itself out. As a singer and songwriter, Weiss is whipsmart and immediately likable, knowing how to find inventive melodies while still inviting everyone to sing along. Her approach is relatable: anyone who’s ever thought “life sucks sometimes, but this is all I’ve got, dammit, and it’s going to work” will find something that gets them here. Allison Weiss says what she means, and I hope she says more.