Ghostly vocal lines that recall Florence and the Machine and Joanna Newsom in equal measure characterise this third LP from Barcelona-based singer-songwriter Joana Serrat. Recorded in Montreal with Arcade Fire producer Howard Bilerman, Cross the Verge is for the most part a downbeat yet intriguing LP that places the singer well and truly at the forefront. Unwilling to let the instruments do the talking, sometimes to the album’s detriment, Serrat dances along the upper octaves whilst her fellow musicians keep it simple, playing to her own strengths in terms of performance and yet simultaneously limiting the potential abilities of her songs.
The album doesn’t exactly get off to a thrilling start, opener Lonely Heart Reverb following the same chords and remaining almost texturally identical throughout its duration. Though the echoing vocals of Serrat are entrancingly dark and sweet in equal measure, they remain reliably strong for the rest of the album, the fact that little else is really going on in the background renders the song pretty redundant long before it finishes. This remains a frustratingly constant aspect of Cross the Verge from here on in: whilst the vocals deliver, the songwriting itself outside of her lyrics and melodies is almost completely disregarded.
Nonetheless the album does throw a few curveballs down the line, as it wavers between tender, yet eerie folk ballads (Oh, Winter Come, Your Gold Could Be Mine) and a more direct country sound with driven percussion and injections of electric guitar licks (Tug Of War, Black Lake). A particularly interesting track is Flags, a cold, unnerving song that uses its electric instruments sparsely but effectively, emanating a slight gothic edge among the song’s loose, almost formless tone.
On the tracks Cloudy Heart and Black Lake Serrat hires the help of a male co-vocalist, working with Neil Halstead of cult shoegaze legends Slowdive on the former, and Ryan Boldt of The Deep Dark Woods on the latter. Both of these tracks are up there with the album’s best, though the lack of harmonies or any kind of polyrhythm feels a little like a chance wasted. Listening to such warmly deep vocalists work with Serrat is refreshing, but their following the same melodies on different octaves with little, if any, variation becomes tiresome very quickly.
Impressive as her voice is, Joana Serrat’s latest record doesn’t always take off in ways one would want. Either as a result of a lack of instrumental expertise or some plain shoddy songwriting, almost every track on the record seems to squander its own potential by keeping its cards frustratingly close to its chest. Nonetheless, it is an album with plenty to delve into, and the moments in which it does shine are worth sticking around for. Cross the Verge is a decidedly difficult, but often rewarding, listen.