Zemfira: Borderline – album review
LP | CD | DL
The long-awaited seventh album by the Russian singer-songwriter explores motifs of vulnerable mental state.
On the amateur-on-purpose black cover, the title ‘borderline’ is crossed and shaded with uneven lines, as if it was drawn in chalk on a blackboard by a nervous student. Vivid imagery for roughly half of the singer’s current audience who were teens when the songwriter from Bashkortostan, a multicultural region in central Russia, surpassed in national charts with her debut album. A constantly changing team of session musicians over more than twenty years and occasional experiments with sound are balanced out with ever prevailing aspects that still speak to the diverse listenership. Confessional lyrics, stripped-down arrangement, emotive vocals.
Explaining the phenomenon of Zemfira, a Russian singer-songwriter of a national scale, to the audience beyond the post-Soviet world is a complicated task. With her breakthrough in 1999, the musician restored traditions of Russian rock mixing them with Britpop trends that spread on the verge of two centuries. Although overused in the media, the word ‘sincerity’ is one of those characteristics that fans would still attribute to these songs, borrowing from Soviet underground and British influences, including guitar music and trip-hop. Following the release of her debut album, the popularity of the singer rose and the so-called trend of Zemfiromania overflew the country.
Now, almost twenty years later, the musician still has a cult following, although many of her fans grew up and wouldn’t chase her as they did in the early 2000s. Witnessing the changing music landscape, Zemfira refused to be an artistic seer and define trends for the new century. Instead, the artist has kept on doing what she likes, still having sold-out shows all across the country. Her releases trigger discussions and interest from the media. The recent Borderline took music journalists aback as it popped up on all digital platforms with no date announcement in advance. With her previous LP released in 2013, it took eight years for the new work to come out.
Both the visual and audio content of the album reflect the disorder concept. Ironically, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is one of the associations that comes to mind when looking at the cover and watching the LP’s promo video. Although borderline serves as a metaphor, the structure of the album seems to mimic the emotional cycle that insinuates BPD. With hefty guitar chords akin to Led Zeppelin, the intro track Tabletki (Pills) is a descriptive self-observation that portrays the protagonist in the peak of crisis: My eye is twitching, pills are running out, demons are praying, oil is pumped out.
Just as the haunting presence of the Soviet new wave, British references are endemic on the record. Although written in cyrillic, some titles, such as Абьюз (Abuse) and Камон (C’mon), are Anglicisms. On the latter, Zemfira equally pays homage to The Smiths and Kino, the cult Soviet post-punk collective. Hazy sound is interwoven with Johnny Marr-esque Fender Jaguar and Victor Tsoi’s type of minimalist strumming.
Even though the singer named Paul McCartney as an inspiration, melodically Pal’to (The Coat) evokes dream-driven songs of John Lennon. The bittersweet lyrics suggest a contradictory state of feelings: Today is the best day to forget you, cease to love you / Like a shadow, I’ll be reading all signboards / losing senses in my temples and thinking about us. This is followed by a refrain implying that the story reincarnates itself – Dressed in a beautiful coat, I’ll walk along the embankment and meet you.
Then there are hints of Radiohead. With the name as an obvious reference, Том (Thom) has a chord progression ostensibly re-animating Paranoid Android. Perhaps, the phantom presence of Thom Yorke explains the sci-fi motif of virtual versus real on some other songs. Named after a butler of Homescapes, the singer’s favourite computer game, Austin is a pulse-y dark new wave number, an attempt to perceive the feelings of the protagonist.
Yet the fictional characters co-exist with the real ones. Balancing between sotto voce and whispering, Zemfira addresses her mother who passed away a few years ago. With the melodic loop repeated all over the song, the composition reminds of a dirge or lament. Muffled bass sewn into mechanic trip-hop texture emphasize the state of alienation, the necessity of solitude.
Despite obvious adoration for the British scene, Zemfira creates music that encapsulates Russian mentality. Her artistic heritage has become part of the national mindset. Besides the musician doesn’t seem to be very obsessed with the idea of moving from national to the global level. All songs are sung in Russian. The language undoubtedly contributes to the emotive mood but also narrows the audience down to native speakers. Apart from the linguistic aspect, it is also the cultural context that inhibits understanding. This music seems to be stuck in time, nostalgic and purposefully not hip. Music of a mature artist that gives a glimpse into the mysterious Russian soul. It’s good to give it a go so to perceive the national psyche better.
The album is available on digital platforms.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found at her author’s archive.