Who’s going to be the next Lana Del Rey? It’s an essentialist, probably unfair question to ask, but one that’s been answered regardless with the appearance of Zella Day. At 20 years old, she’s already being called the “happier” version of the Born To Die artist, which could for her be a godsend or a disaster. The comparison isn’t totally unwarranted. Songs like “Compass” have strong yet silky-smooth vocals. When Day talks about “honeysuckle memories,” it sounds practically plagiarized. Still, it’s up to fans to determine whether they’d clamor for more of the dreamy soul of millennial women—or whether there’s room for both. Ultimately, Day and her latest album, Kicker, need to find their own place within the industry—which they arguably ought to have. She’s got something more to say than a Del Rey addendum.
As of now, the Arizona native is straddling an indie following and the precipice of mainstream: she was featured on iTunes a few times, she played on Conan a little while back, and her single, “Sacrifice,” was featured in YA novel-turned-hit-movie Divergent. With only two other EPs to her name, she’d best be described as “burgeoning,” but Kicker already shows surprisingly mature artistry. At times, songs like “Jerome” and “High” even have the upbeat conscience of fellow pop prodigy Lorde. Day delivers subtle slights to the hollow promises of American youth—freedom, sex, desirability—ostensibly describing how they come crashing down in small towns like her hometown of Pinetop, Arizona.
It’s interesting, then, to still hear the stylings of Del Rey here, because they almost seem subversive. Kicker is still dreamy, with vocals that make you want to melt; the vibe is a less forceful, much poppier Adele. But for Del Rey, that music allows listeners to lose themselves in the lyrics, and, like her, see a beauty in the confusion. She cares about the journey—Day, on the other hand, knows she’s lost, too. And it frustrates her. She throws away the idea that to be lost is to be glamorous; think Great Gatsby the book versus Great Gatsby the movie. “We shouldn’t have to try so hard,” she sings in “Ace Of Hearts,” but, for most 20-somethings, ideas like this are a revelation: she ought to yell them.
Luckily, she does on singles like “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” which heavily contributes to the album’s irreverent, determined mood. Here, the tone most obvious, most in-your-face and with a marching beat. Yet that’s not all she has to give. Her popular “East Of Eden” moves fast enough to make you want to run wild like she sings about. It’s like if Imagine Dragons or Of Monsters And Men got the slight tempo kick you’ve always wanted. If that’s not enough, the album’s later “Mustang Kids” is so forceful the song’s almost punk. It’s all an interesting direction to take—when you’re marching, you can’t pretend you’re apathetic.
By the time one gets to “Sweet Ophelia,” there’s even, dare I say, a more feminist tone. Taking inspiration from the Hamlet character, Day sings a synthy, punchy ode to a girl named Ophelia, described like “cherry pie” and with “gold curls.” She’s in an abyss of a manipulative relationship, it seems, and unlike certain British eroticists, doesn’t romanticize it. (Turns out that losing yourself in a man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.) Similar revelations occur on “1961” and “Hypnotic,” and one might call it the Del Ray antidote.
Yet I hope both women stay in the scene—Del Rey has often been accused of being fake, of putting on a persona (what musician doesn’t?) but it’s probably fairer to say that at 30, she knows what she wants. She’s very deliberate about what she puts out, both in her music and appearance, and that attention to detail is notable. Day, on the other hand, has no way of knowing—her music, like American youth, reflects a bare uncertainty.
In A Word: Subtle