Album Review: Kississippi - Mood Ring
Kississippi is Jimmy Eat World for Taylor Swift fans
Somewhat recently, I recorded an episode of my podcast1 where I was my own guest—but, because me, alone, talking about music, would probably not make for a very compelling2 listen, I had asked my wife to facilitate, an as best3 as we were able, discussed the songs I had brought to the table.
At the top of the set I had organized for the episode were three songs specifically chosen to detail my “sharp pivot”4 into girl pop—“Baby…One More Time,” by Britney Spears, “Cruel Summer,” from Taylor Swift, and “Run Away With Me,” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Retrospectively, “Run Away With Me” is an absolute banger, but it is not my favorite Carly Ray Jepsen song, and I’m uncertain where it falls in any kind of personally definitive ranking of the songs on Emotion.
I picked “Run Away With Me” because in 2015, at the time of the album’s release, it quickly became one of my favorite songs of the year; it’s also, objectively, an absolutely audacious opening track, and a way to ensure that you’ve grabbed the listener’s attention.
I have come to look at that song, but mostly that album as a whole, as the gateway into my slow, but eventual very wide and open-armed embracement of pop music.
And in discussing Jepsen, and Emotion, and “Run Away With Me,” I tried to articulate how she, as a performer and songwriter, is way more than just “Call Me Maybe,” and in the three years between Kiss, and Emotion, she didn’t so much try to reinvent herself, but regardless, when she returned, whether this was intentional or not, she returned as what what my wife accurately described, before I could even say it, as an “indie pop darling.”
There’s a piece Hanif Abdurraqib wrote for MTV in 2017 where he travels to Toronto to see Jepsen play to a hometown crowd with a symphony orchestra backing her—it is, of course, like almost all of Aburraqib’s writing, about so much more5 than simply just a concert, though.
In it, he says this:
…Pop music desires a body—a single, focused human form as an object of interest. Emotion fails in this, I suppose, because its primary characters are desire and distance. Want may be a machine that lurches us toward a newer, more eager want, but the idea alone, pointing at nothing specific, doesn’t sell records. That is one theory as to why Carly Rae Jepsen, despite her ability to hone in on a feeling and make it flourish, isn’t the biggest pop star in the world. But I’m not really interested in why Emotion didn’t sell a million copies, because I don’t care about how an album sells as much as I care about how an album lives.
Despite being responsible for a ubiquitous single that, in the United States alone, eventually reached Diamond certification, and even with remaining connected to a major label for her two subsequent full lengths as well as their corresponding collections of b-sides, I am now, while writing this, wondering if Carly Rae Jepsen is someone a majority of her listeners would consider to be “indie pop” because she, simply, is not the biggest pop star in the world—but she is still making pop music that, inherently, finds itself attracting a demographic that (still and regrettably) reads Pitchfork?
Or, is Jepsen, maybe because of her age and the lack of concern she seems to have about chart positions and album sales, making incredibly bright and kaleidoscopic “pop music for adults?”
Is there a place where those two genres, or descriptors, intersect?
On the Bandcamp page for Zoe Reynolds’ indie pop outfit Kississippi, she describes them very simply as “songs to yearn to.” And on Twitter, a few weeks following the release of her sophomore full-length under the Kississippi moniker, she refers to the band she founded and has fronted for the last seven years as “Jimmy Eat World for Taylor Swift fans.”
And that is how I choose to describe the band, and the recently released Mood Ring, to a co-worker, after an attempted comparison6 to Carly Rae Jepsen didn’t land the way I had wanted it to.
Coming a very long way from the lo-fi, ramshackle, acoustic beginnings of her first EP, I Can Still Feel You in My Hair, or the moody, downcast indie rock of its follow up, 2015’s We Have No Future, We’re All Doomed, Reynolds anecdotally began to slowly shift the focus of the project with her first full-length, Sunset Blush, from 2018, with her sound at that time still leaning more into the “indie” and less into the “pop,” though the latter wasn’t totally absent—it just wasn’t nearly as prevalent in the instrumentation.
The peak7-Jimmy Eat World influence can be heard at times, yes, and Reynolds’ impressively manages to pack a lot of yearning (and more) into Mood Ring’s 35 minute running time—she hasn’t completely foregone the “indie” elements her band once touted, but the album as a whole is a brightly colored, rollicking slice of pure pop music perfection.
And maybe it’s because Mood Ring is so concise of an album, but Reynolds wastes absolutely no time introducing the sheer enormity of these songs, and within the album’s first half, she doesn’t really let up on the momentum or dazzling pop exuberance until the second half starts—even when things take a slow and simmering shift as the first side comes to a close with the very sultry “Heaven,” it is still based, like nearly every song in the collection, around an infectious (albeit slowed down in a few instances) refrain, and shimmering, slick arrangements and accompaniments.
A number of years ago, perhaps within the humble beginnings of Anhedonic Headphones, I was writing about a song that, musically, could only be described by using the image of bright neon lights reflecting slowly, and gorgeously, off of the hood of a car, driving down a city street late at night.
And it’s a image, and a reference point, that I have reused, yes, I am certain—I have probably not recycled it as much as I have with other expressions or ideas, but from the moment Mood Ring’s opening track, “We’re So In Tune,” begins, this is one of the images that came to mind, almost immediately, and especially as Reynolds directs the song into its shout-a-long refrain.
Mood Ring isn’t a concept album, but it is a set of songs that are tightly connected through the idea of longing, and yes, yearning—but there is a real thoughtfulness to the way Reynolds has structured the album in a give and take, of sorts, varying the kind of longing or yearning she is singing about. There is the anticipatory longing, or yearning, for what she, as the protagonist of the songs, wants, or desires, that has not occurred yet; there is the longing for what once was, in the wake of a relationship that has ended and the feelings that are still present as the dust settles; and there is the yearning and insatiability within the moment when you have gotten what you have wanted—the object of your desire.
And at times, there is a collision, or convergence, of all three, where within the dizzying and Technicolor arrangements, it is difficult to differentiate the place where Reynolds is writing from, which is what occurs on “We’re So In Tune,” where the first verse seemingly begins in one place, but by the refrain, ends up in another—“Playing in the same song like I’m playing it cool,” Reynolds sings the “1980s-inspired but through a 2021 lens” kind of gossamer synths and guitars. “Hard not to fall in love when we’re so in tune—can you hear it too?”
She continues that convergence of longing—a kind of tension and release that is unrelenting, on “Moonover,” which is one of Mood Ring’s strongest, and by far one of its most infectious tracks. Over glitchy, and skittering sounds that are playfully woven into the rhythm of the song, the bright, glistening guitars and sharp sounding percussion tumble together effortlessly to create the kind of groove you can’t help but move your body in time.
Lyrically, Reynolds hasn’t so much created a difficult to understand refrain, but it is one that takes some thought to unpack, or unravel—“If this is the future, let’s go back in time. I wanna show you how it looked through my eyes,” she explains. Then, shortly after, “I know I was yours before you were mine,” which, out of all the lyrics on Mood Ring, is among the phrase turns that resonates the most, and is one of the most honest—or at least the most heartfelt.
“I know that you wonder—it’s always been you,” she confesses to the object of her affection and the recipient of all that yearning, near the end of the song, before a surprising plea in the song’s final lines. “I know you couldn’t ever, but I’ve gotta say it—it’s true. If you ever long to leave, I want you to know, I’ll never let you go.”
A good friend of mine, I’ve found over the last year or so, also likes pop music—not as much as I do, I don’t think, and I have learned she is slightly more critical of it, or at least of specific artists. Her problem with the genre, though, as a whole, is that a bulk of pop music is very straight, and you would be hard pressed to find a pop song that isn’t about love, or romance, and in some instances, not about being extremely horny.
There are levels, it seems, to how coy or blatant an artist chooses to be when singing about sex—a lot of it might have to do with how far they are willing to push themselves as artists, or put themselves out there. Carly Rae Jepsen is often coy, or at least relatively reserved, in the way she’s presented the idea of sex in her music—“Want You In My Room” is the only example I can think of where she plays against type, with lyrics like, “I wanna do bad things to you…Baby, don’t you want me too?”
There was a time when being sexually empowered, or sex positive, or embracing that portion of your personality was more or less frowned upon or discouraged in pop music—Madonna, famously, was seen as shocking and controversial in the early 1990s with the release of Erotica; contemporarily speaking, an artist like Ariana Grande would not be the polar opposite to Carly Rae Jepsen’s playfulness and lyrics that more often than not are vague enough to leave something to the imagination, but Grande, specifically on last year’s aptly titled Positions, makes it clear what she wants—she wants her back blown out, and she wants it done as soon as humanly possible.
There is a way, I think, to strike a healthy balance between the two extremes—the winking double entendre or hint of lustiness in a lyric, and more or less singing, “I need you to crack my shit and I need you to do it right now.” A possible halfway point between the poles—a sultriness, if you will, is where Reynolds primarily operates from on Mood Ring when a song calls for it, and on an album like this, full of songs written from various states of yearning, there is a sultry, lusty feeling that she gently guides the album into the further along it goes.
Coupled with the steady rhythm, guitars pulled straight from a gauzy, dream pop tune, and a palpable sense of longing, Reynolds begins introducing the more “romantic” imagery on “Dreams With You,” where she, again, walks that line between what kind of yearning, and if she has snared the object of her desire yet, or if she is still simply pining. “Do you know my name yet?,” she asks early in the song. “‘Cause my brain’s repeating yours.”
Then after the song’s bright refrain, things seem like they’ve progressed for Reynolds—“Cheeks are pink from friction,” she concedes. “I’ve been busy kissing yours.”
As the first half of the album continues, Reynolds becomes a little more blunt in the desires she’s written into her lyrics, while still oscillating through her yearnings, like on the bombastic, synth heavy “Around Your Room”—“Are you feeling me?,” she asks coyly slightly before the song explodes into its refrain. “‘Cause I’ve been feeling tip-top with you keeping me wide away. We’ve been skipping sleep,” she continues. “Show me I’m the one with the way you’re keeping your hands to yourself in the backseat. Carefree, windows down like we’re 16. Steady when you are around me—a babe in the woods for legitimate longing,” which is perhaps the most self-aware, knowing lyric on the album.
It makes sense, then, that the song that, musically speaking, is arranged to be the sound the most smoldering, is also the song where Reynolds reaches the place where she is most forward, and leaves as little ambiguity or to the imagination as possible. “You tell me it’s just like heaven,” she coos in a higher range on “Heaven,” the song that closes out the album’s first side. “And it makes me a believer.”
Then, later on, perhaps the most surprising lyric of the entire album—“Show me a green light,” she commands. “You can choose honey. Tell me what you like, Can you take me naturally, baby, it feels so right.”
Perhaps more surprising than the sensual nature that Mood Ring adopts within its middle half is the somber turn it takes near the end—with Reynolds shaping a loose narrative arc through the myriad yearnings and longing, and concluding with the type of yearning that arrives after heartbreak.
The shift into sorrow is most prevalent in the album’s final two tracks, but the glitchy, trap-inspired rhythms of “Play ’Til You Win” are also of not, not only because of the compelling production and slight effects tossed onto Reynolds’ voice, but because of the startling way she begins the song—“I’m a sad little kid with a heart full of sin,” she begins over chilly sounding synths and the crisp hit of an electronic snare drum, which is one of the most audacious and memorable opening lines to a song I can think of within the last, like two years8 for sure.
“And I miss what we had but I don’t want it back ‘cause it hurts too bad,” she continues.
And there is, of course, as there often is in “real life,” a self effacing nature to the way the end of the relationship at the core of these songs is depicted by the time Reynolds reaches Mood Ring’s final track, “Hellbeing.”
I stop short of saying that a song like “Hellbeing” is “dark,” but anecdotally, and in comparison to the rest of Mood Ring’s tone, it is much more pensive, and musically, it’s the song that is the most dramatically arranged in the way it swells with a grander when Reynolds finds herself within the desperate pleadings of the refrain.
“Hellbeing” fades in slowly with an array of skittering, pitch shifted vocal “ooooo-ing” clearing the way for Reynolds to arrive with a strummed, cavernous electric guitar. “I’m sorry you put your heart in god awful, unapologetic friends,” she begins before confessing, “I’m sorry I became like them—they’re not like you. I wanna be the bigger one.’
From there, the theatricality and regret continue to build, as Reynolds continues to refer to herself as an “eyesore” and a “hellbeing,” demanding that the person in question burns all of their daylight on her. “If I wasn’t so selfish, do you think we could be friends, like back when you were the best?,” she asks in a moment where the flourishing instrumentation drops out temporarily, prior to it all rushing back in again for the finale. “Do you think I deserved it,” Reynolds implores, at the end of the song. “Do you think I deserve you?”
For an album that begins as jubilantly as Mood Ring does, it does come as quite a surprise when it ends with a total reversal in tone, and with this torrent of very raw emotion. And there is no answer to Reynolds’ final question—“Do you think I deserve you?,” and that’s the thing—there doesn’t always have to be an easy answer, or a resolution in the end, but as “Hellbeing” dissolves into the ether through the sound of a sustained piano key, what that note leaves behind isn’t so much a feeling that is unsettling, but of a tension that lingers, and sits with you long after the album has concluded.
A number of years ago, perhaps within the humble beginnings of Anhedonic Headphones, when all of the pieces I was writing were much shorter in length, and therefore, I was much more prolific than I could ever fathom being now, eight years down the line. And everything that Was writing, at that time, within those first two or three years, for sure, was written in a less pensive voice, so things were probably breezier for the reader, and everything overall was much less complicated, I wrote about a song that, musically, could only be described by using the image of bright neon lights reflecting slowly, and gorgeously, off of the hood of a car, driving down a city street late at night.
And it’s a image, and a reference point, that I have reused, yes, I am certain—and I have probably not recycled it as much as I have with other expressions or ideas, like the idea I often return to, and have often found myself ruminating on, especially within the last two years, when everything has been written in a pensive, more articulate voice, so things are more challenging for the reader if they stick with it, and everything, overall, is now incredibly complicated.
And that’s the idea of feeling seen and attacked.
There are artists, or genres, where I have come to anticipate those feelings, and I think initially, when I began both listening, in earnest, to more pop music, but also writing, more thoughtfully, about pop music, it was a genre that I originally anticipate creating those reactions from me.
And because of the, overall, either playful yearning, or sensual longing, found on Mood Ring, it was not the kind of album I expected to make me feel, as my therapist would say, “some type of way.”
I know it ain’t easy to love me
And I guess what I have come to realize about music—pop music specifically here, is it doesn’t have to be an entire song. Sometimes it can just be one line—just a few words connected together into a phrase turn that hits me in just the right way, and resonates much more than it maybe should. I found that happening on Sour, the debut from teen pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo, and emotionally wrenching ballad “Traitor” where in the refrain, she uses the expression, “I loved you at your worst,” which did not, so much, send me spiraling, but had me ruminating on the very notion of just that—of someone, whether they realize it or not, being at their absolute worst, and what a Herculean effort it must take to love them—romantically, or platonically speaking.
If “Moonover” is one of Mood Ring’s strongest tracks in terms of an enormous, rollicking, and importantly, upbeat song, than “Big Dipper,” the album’s penultimate moment, is not its antithesis, but it’s a dramatic, simmering, and somber ballad that shows both the range of Reynolds’ songwriting as well as her soaring vocal abilities.
“There’s no need to say sorry, so you say to me,” the song begins quietly. “But I know it ain’t easy to love me—it’s harder now to breathe.” And, as the verses build into the refrain, and as the song continues to slowly grow in a harrowing momentum, there is a visceral sense of regret. “Big Dipper—long goodbye,” Reynolds belts in the refrain. “We don’t plan these things; it all moved too fast and my conscious was blurred.”
And it’s that line—“I know it ain’t easy to love me,” that, when it hit me, and resonated much deeper than I expected, it knocked the wind out of me, because even within an album like Mood Ring, and an earnest pop song like “Big Dipper,” I caught a quick glimpse of myself, sending me into that place of feeling both seen and attacked, but still remaining within the woozy environment Reynolds created.
A song like “Big Dipper,” in the way Reynolds plays with the give and take of reflective restraint in the verses, then allowing the song soar with a theatrical flair in the refrain, makes it one of the most impactful pop ballads I can think of in a long, long time—astounding in the way that the song itself is still incredibly catchy, while still being absolutely fucking devastating in the way its delivered, with lines that are among album’s most memorable and haunting—“I don’t think our time could outrun me….I still miss you only when I’m lonely.”
There was a time, I think, and certainly when I was much younger and had a lot more enthusiasm than I do now, where I cared, to the extent that I could, about how an album sold—feeling some kind of thrill, or vindication in my tastes, like when Kid A and Amnesiac both charted within the top five the week of their respective releases, or when The National finally broke through after a decade of slowly building their audience and High Violet landed at number three on the Billboard 200.
But now, I rarely, if ever, pay attention to how well an album sells—and if it does sell well, that jolt of excitement I once felt is long gone, and I would agree that I, too, and more concerned with how an album lives—the life it lived as it was being created, the fury in its introduction into the world at large, and the how it might live on—like, is it an album that has a short-dated shelf life, or is it the kind of thing that can be returned to months after its release, or a year or two later, and still have the same kind of impact.
Could Zoe Reynolds be a huge pop star—is that even what she wants? I hesitate to say Mood Ring is the foil to every other “popular” pop album in zeitgeist, but there is something incredibly refreshing about how it openly embraces the idea of yearning and longing, in all forms, as well as its unabashed 1980s influence within the instrumentation—forgoing nearly all of the trappings of what you might hear from a lot of Top 40 music if you were to turn on the radio right now.
Even with a sound connected to the past, it thrives within this moment, and there is a timelessness to the way Reynolds balances the enormous fun and contagious energy, with the starkness arriving in the album’s final moments, creating a space we can inhabit where it is okay to sing along at the top of your lungs, cry uncontrollably, or if you are able, perhaps both in the same breath.
1- Shameless self promotion of the Anhedonic Headphones podcast, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, et. al. Learn more about it here I guess? Subscribe if you are interested.
2- I realize now that I need a second person to help the conversation move along—something that I think I wish I would have known or understood better when I was working in radio and did a show more or less alone, every day, for almost three years, and I’m sure it was pretty boring when I would talk on the air, especially within the last few months of the show before I quit, because I was too depressed to really say much in between songs.
3- I say “as best,” because even though I had prompted my wife with a list of the songs I wanted to discuss, she was admittedly unfamiliar with some of them.
4- I think my friend Juli said this to me on Twitter, more than likely two years ago, so shout out to you Juli.
5- Hanif makes everything seem so graceful and effortless, with the way he lets so many ideas converge within an essay and he’s probably the writer who has had the most influence on me, and how I’ve started to look at writing and crafting, and I hope that I am even a fraction of the kind of thoughtful writer he is.
6- I described Mood Ring as being the best Carly Rae Jepsen album in a year when Jepsen has not released an album.
7- This is a little subjective but I would say Jimmy Eat World really hit their stride with Clarity, then peaked higher than they maybe should have with Bleed American, and in retrospect, Futures has some really good and emotional songs on it but it also has a lot of missteps. And then let’s keep it funky, those dudes more or less fell off after that but they keep going, so good for them I guess?
8- Even though Lana Del Rey is very polarizing as a figure or a persona or whatever, “God damn man child, you fucked me so good I almost said ‘I love you,’” from “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is one of the best opening lines I have ever heard.