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Review: Sarah Jaffe, 'Bad Baby'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Sarah Jaffe, <em>Bad Baby.</em>
/ Courtesy of artist
Courtesy of artist
Sarah Jaffe, Bad Baby.

Throughout her career, Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe has allowed her sound to expand and evolve in exciting ways. From the beginning, she's had a tremendous knack for heartsick ballads, but she's also grown increasingly adept at vibrant electro-pop that incorporates her career's detours into film scoring and even hip-hop. Jaffe's two most recent albums, 2012's The Body Wins and 2014's Don't Disconnect, showcase a fascination with science and machinery, with a futuristic sound to match. Now, on Bad Baby, she sounds as versatile as ever in songs that mix spiky synth-pop with softer, slower-burning reflections on the way human beings interact.

"Synthetic Love," the epic ballad that opens the album, takes an portentously unsettled look at the future of romance: "Synthetic love is my new drug," Jaffe sings, as ominous effects swirl around her for nearly seven minutes. Elsewhere, the slinky "No Worries" navigates blurred relationship boundaries, while in "This / That," she pleads for clarity — "I'm on the fence / I feel left out / Reveal it all to me" — with the help of a keyboard arrangement that couldn't nod more pointedly in the direction of Spandau Ballet.

"In the middle of every extreme / There is a part where the two ends meet," Jaffe sings in "Between," adding, "Before you reach a dead-end street / No one really talks about between." With a synth hook that'd make Tegan And Sara nod in approval, it's a song about compromise, but it doubles as a mission statement for a singer-songwriter who's all about finding deeper meaning in the gray areas of modern life.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)