For her latest album, “Blood Test,” singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst hired a group of musicians she had never worked with before and went into the studio with only a vague sense of what the final product would sound like. The result, out May 13, may be her strongest, most exhilarating work yet.
“I wanted people to play really selectively and deliberately, but at the same time have it be very live and loose,” remembered Delmhorst, reached by phone at her home in western Massachusetts. “I knew what qualities I wanted it to have, but I didn’t really know what it was going to sound like.”
The Brooklyn-bred musician collaborated with the producer and singer-songwriter Anders Parker, of Space Needle and New Multitudes, who brought in drummer Konrad Meissner and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer. Arrangements were worked out in the studio and overdubs were kept to a minimum. On “Blood Test,” that liveness lends a freewheeling feeling to otherwise tightly written songs. Delmhorst, who sings in an understated, conversational style, allows her voice to break and waver. The trace of vulnerability functions as a counterpoint to the sometimes loud rock n’ roll aesthetic.
Delmhorst has always been a song-oriented artist, more focused on craftsmanship than sonic character. Often that has meant rock-inflected, Americana-flavored albums (with the occasional foray into electronic territory), and in that sense “Blood Test” is no different. But while Delmhorst can be counted on to write strong material, her treatments have at times felt a bit arbitrary, if not overproduced. “Blood Test,” by contrast, is at once concise and energetic. Throughout the album, Delmhorst traverses a vast dynamic range, both musically and emotionally, with nary an unnecessary flourish, while still managing to reach brief, transcendent heights.
Take, for example, “92nd Street.” The song begins with a single, low note intoned on an acoustic guitar and the simplest of melodies, almost an incantation: “Up on 92nd street/ One of seven million faces”—there, the note goes up a third, sweetening the next line—“Maps inside your jacket sleeve”—before returning home again for the final line: “Keys to all the secret places.” Delmhorst’s voice trails off past the edge of a whisper. Then a breath, a delicate guitar solo, and another refrain; but this time, her voice careens up an octave. Cue the drums, the bass and a few nasty remarks from an electric guitar. Then, suddenly, it all disappears, leaving just a whiff of feedback in its wake. A final quiet verse, and it’s over. A fragrant memory, like the story in the song.
Delmhorst says the songs on “Blood Test” were not originally compiled with any thematic commonality in mind, but she later noticed that many of them pivot on a moment of clarity, a kind of existential lucidity. “Blood Test” is Delmhorst’s first solo effort in three years, following a 2011 compilation of covers of songs by the Boston-founded band The Cars, and her first album of original material in six. In the intervening years, the singer had a daughter, and she says this accounts for the long perspective on “Blood Test.”
“It’s almost that you can see yourself as a symbol, like what you mean,” says Delmhorst of motherhood. “Rather than the minutiae of who you are and what you care about and what you do. It’s like seeing yourself as a piece of this fabric that extends way beyond any individual validity that you have.”
That sensation is evoked in songs like “Saw It All,” a bluesy, moody number built around the refrain “I went high/ I saw it all.” In it, Delmhorst describes a sort of spiritual ascent, in which she detects both beauty and danger as she looks down on the earth from above. Other songs are more gentle in their exploration of weighty subjects, like “My Ohio,” a lovingly rendered portrait of an old (perhaps departed) friend that unravels with a soft note of regret: “I never knew just what a friend was for/ I never knew about the open door/ I never knew that I could know you more.”
“I think that my progression as a writer has just been towards leaving more out, like trying to leave as much out as I can of the story and still have it hold together,” says Delmhorst, who released her first album in 1998. “More and more I’ve been comfortable with just letting things be vague and leaving kind of spaces. I always talk about it being an empty shelf for the listener to put their sh-t on.”
It’s for this reason that her songs, says Delmhorst, are a bit like a collaboration between listener and singer. And it’s that mentality that drives the album, from the lyricism to the recording process. Even as she hones her ability to pen simple songs with arresting metaphors, Delmhorst embraces the ambiguity and surprise that comes with spontaneity. With “Blood Test,” she finds the sweet spot between eloquent precision and letting go.