White Turns Blue

Maria Mena

Columbia Records, 2004


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I've written here before about expectations and how they can warp perceptions and create surprise where maybe there shouldn't be any. The fact is, I've been favorably impressed before by the precocious talents of young singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch, and, despite my fairly typical affinity for the underdog, I'm not averse to giving a major-label artist props when they earn them. All that said, I still find myself grinning with surprise as I announce to the world that this album absolutely kicked my ass.

Maria Mena is an 18-year-old singer-songwriter from Norway, and Sony's hoped-for Next Big Thing here in the States. A few songs on this album -- her American debut -- previously saw light in Europe as part of her 2001 hit album Another Phase, recorded when she was just 15. In terms of musical style, it's pretty mainstream pop-rock, nothing terribly remarkable in terms of production or arrangements. In terms of lyrics and songwriting, however, it's simply one of the best albums I've heard this year.

Mena's appeal is the way her songs so artfully capture a certain time in life -- those super-charged middle teens, where life dissolves into a series of intensely-felt moments filled with awkwardness and desperation, surging hormones and flagging self-esteem. Singers having been writing songs about not fitting in for as long as music has existed, it seems, but rarely with this combination of raw vulnerability and sure-handed emotional truth.

You can sense it right from the start. In the opener and first single, "You're The Only One," Mena presents the verses as spoken-word asides coming straight from the narrator's giddy head, before launching into the soaring, hook-laden chorus. Mena's sometimes-startling frankness only serves to underscore the poignancy of verses like this: "I hope you can forgive me for that time / When I put my hand between your legs / And said it was small / 'Cause it's really not at all / I guess there's just a part of me that likes to bring you down / Just to keep you around / 'Cause the day you realize how amazing you are / You're gonna leave me."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

By turns flirty and petulant, raw and vulnerable, this is as true a portrait of a teenaged girl's inner life as I've experienced anywhere outside of an Annie Lamott novel. And yes, the echoes of Alanis Morissette are clear right away -- this is a young female singer-songwriter of prodigious talent who lacks only one thing: fear.

Mena sings with similarly bracing intimacy about the impact of her parent's divorce ("My Lullaby") and the burden of expectations she feels from her father ("Blame It On Me"). The latter she pulls off particularly well by having the guts and perspective to write the song from her father's point of view. As compelling as these moments are, though, they're deeply personal, and therefore perhaps not quite as universal in appeal as the intense vulnerability Mena displays on the amazing "Just A Little Bit" and "Sorry."

"Just A Little Bit" is a catalog of every teenaged girl's insecurities that simply makes your heart ache with recognition as the narrator wishes she was "Just a little bit stronger / Just a little bit wiser / Just a little less needy… Just a little bit pretty / Just a little more aware / Just a little bit thinner / And maybe I'd get there." In between these choruses lie verses filled with images that slap you in the face with the emotional price some girls pay trying too hard to fit in and be cool: "Clearly, clearly I remember / Pulling up my shirt / Staring blank ahead / Clearly, clearly I remember / Days of useless crying / Almost feeling dead."

"Sorry" is another devastating piece of emotional truth-telling, a very pretty, very raw acoustic ballad about an unrequited love. "Why can't you love me, I'll change for you, I'll play the part," Mena sings, and the saddest part is, you sense this song's narrator is so vulnerable that she really would give up her very identity in exchange for the smallest affirmation. It's of course possible for baring one's soul to come off as maudlin or self-pitying, but you won't find a single misstep in that direction here. Mena's candor and clarity in the act of sharing her innermost self with the world invest this album with an emotional resonance that's rare and precious.

While White Turns Blue isn't going to be mistaken for a Phish album, it does offer some musical variety. Mena executes the quiet/loud, hard/soft thing superbly on "Take You With Me" and "Your Glasses," proving that she sounds equally at home rocking out as playing gentler love songs. Somewhere in the middle, she attacks the juking nightclub-jazz experiment "Lose Control" like a pro, absolutely nailing the vocal, and you realize this girl has no fear for a reason -- as Reggie Jackson once famously said, "It ain't bragging if you can do it."

I'll grant you, my perceptions of this album may be colored slightly by having a 15-year-old daughter of my own -- it's hard not to be touched by songs that seem to speak from your own child's soul. Be that as it may, I believe White Turns Blue is the work of a remarkable new voice. Maria Mena, I am your fan.

Rating: A

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© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.