ARK: musicians, writers and others choose an album to write about.

The SubSet by Kristeen Young

Leah Kardos

Given the wide-open brief to write about any album in the world, it took me approximately 3 seconds to choose Kristeen Young’s terminally overlooked self-produced album The SubSet (2019).

Why so overlooked? Perhaps its potential to flower in the hearts and minds of ordinary fans of good music was cut by the screeching planetary brakes of Covid 19, which crashed upon us mere months after its release in late 2019. Then again, being terminally overlooked is a baked-in detail across the whole of Young’s nearly 30-year career trajectory. This under-appreciation might have something to do with the stifling categories that music culture still imposes on the work of women. For people who can’t stomach a feminine-presenting singer-songwriter with a piano under their hands sounding anything but soft, Tori Amos might have been correct when she sang “I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars”. Kristeen Young sounds like a squall. Like a scorched earth sensual catharsis. Her elastic coloratura soprano voice is angelic, animal and twisted. With virtuosic blunt violence she’ll pound her scuzzy distorted digital piano with elegant fists until it breaks into sonic rubble. Her songs are wellsprings of hot rage and caustic loathing, stubborn drama and ethereal beauty. I think this is why I’m drawn her: she’s on the outside and she’s pissed off and so am I.

 

The SubSet by Kristeen Young, cassette

 

The SubSet is my favourite thing that she’s ever made, not only because it’s great, but because with it Young had entered her auteur phase. The project was her first autonomous self-production, on 8-track cassette, no less. Aside from some drumming from ex-band associate Jefferson ‘Baby Jef’ White, and a field recording featuring a street musician playing bells, Young sings, plays, arranges and programs everything else you can hear. She was getting to grips with learning how to use a new keyboard workstation at the time, and wrote, performed and recorded her first ever song on a guitar (“The Bold One”). All this risk taking is vulnerable making; you can taste it in the music, it feels alive and vital because of it. This compelling quality extends into the lyric worlds of tracks like the swooning, nihilistic love song “Everyday SubTraction” (“I don’t care about human extinction / It’s just an everyday distraction from you”), the disquieting and autobiographical “Marine Dadd” (“My birthfather … had an S.S. mural in his basement / And a concrete swastika in his backyard / He wore women’s clothes and wrote me sex letters constantly”), and further outwards to the self-made music and lyric videos, and bespoke costume couture.

 

 

The SubSet coheres thematically around experiences of being treated as subordinate in society. Opening track “Less Than” is an aggressive rebuttal to fantasies of female subjugation set to onerous tribal drums and blasts of distorted piano dissonance. Young evokes images of women being held back in life, from the pregnant and barefooted trad-wife to the artist who others would prefer stayed in the shadows singing backgrounds (“do what I’m supposed to do … like you but not as good”). “St.Even” explores Young’s mixed feelings about cancel culture and the rise of performative morality in the wake of the ‘me too’ movement (it also references an incident with a famous singer she once worked with). Volatile glam-punk work out “In 3rd Grade We Learn DiVision” riffs on the absurdity of skin shade prejudice in the modern world.

 

 

The album comes full circle with the sober, spoken word coda (“Differentials”), where the artist calmly confesses a bleak worldview: “We are different in ways that are so beyond race or gender / and always lonely / and we know that no change will ever come our way.” Maybe that’s the philosophical core of it, the power of powerless people to at least behold the beauty of their own hopelessness.

 

Leah Kardos is a London-based music creator and writer. She makes eclectic, mostly instrumental music; is a senior lecturer in music at Kingston University and Project Leader of the Visconti Studio, a recording and research facility; started the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra in 2019; contributes music criticism to The Wire; and wrote Blackstar Theory, a book that critically analyses David Bowie’s last works (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) and a book on Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (33 1/3 series, Bloomsbury Academic, November 2024). www.leahkardos.com