Cutting a debut record is tough enough without a day job, but despite her expanding presence in television and film, actress Lola Kirke makes it look fairly easy. Following a 2016 self-titled EP, Heart Head West is Kirke’s first long player, and its lilting, laid-back posture allows her to plant one foot in confessional country music and the other in the weightless folk of Laurel Canyon. But regardless of Heart Head West’s stretch of sweet-and-sour ballads, its lack of textural and rhythmic variety leaves you hungry for something heartier.
Kirke’s music is most effective when she combines candied melodies with prudent lyrics that go down like a bitter pill. Opening track “Monster” is a prime example; Kirke plumbs the murky depths of her register before floating to its peaks. “What if nothing’s wrong?” she asks, “What if it was all just a song?” Kirke’s question poses a makeshift solution for one of the record’s most complex problems: How do you fuse dignity and the need for social acceptance? The song’s slide guitar and flourishes of harmonium form an elegant scaffold for Kirke’s smoke-cured vocals, and though her questions are never answered, she explores a relatable dilemma with grace.
One of Heart Head West’s primary flaws lies in its sequencing. “Monster” is a strong start, but the nine subsequent tracks are weaker by comparison. “Born to Die” dilutes “Monster”’s formula, cutting it with the boho nihilism of Lana Del Rey (“Baby you were born to die” Kirke sings) and the breathy lull of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. The mood evoked is not a shortcoming, per se, but it registers as a little forced and musically thin. The unfortunately titled “Sexy Song” exhibits a similar lack in spark. Lingering in the same mid-tempo limbo as most of the record, it’s a lounge ballad from the perspective of a romantically neglected woman who’s this close to downright begging for sex—a welcome twist on the clichéd dynamics between men and women in rock music. Sadly, Kirke’s plea sounds more like an elegy for erections past rather than an empowered command.
Things pick up when “Supposed To” hurls the record’s sauntering tempo out the saloon doors with a boisterous rockabilly number. It isn’t the star of the album, but its scrappy guitar and Loretta Lynn sass make it a fun reprieve from the soft, grazed plains of Heart Head West. “Simon Says,” meanwhile, finds Kirke stepping to a doo-wop groove and crooning her catchiest line: “They all said it wouldn’t hurt anymore/Least not the way that it did before, but it does.” The crack in her voice cuts deep, making me wish she sang this raw more often.
“Point of No Return,” Kirke’s version of Jim Ford’s downtrodden classic, brings things home. Here, the production is simple and the delivery straightforward—but it’s the source material that truly shines at the end of the day. It was Ford, after all who wrote one of the greatest opening lines in country history: “Baby, if the cake ain't missing/How’d that icing get all over you?” While she does it justice, Kirke’s homage summarizes the core issue of her record: It is firm in its influences, but could benefit from growing beyond them.