"There's a million ways to leave your past, to turn your eyes and watch it die," sings Nicole Atkins on "Cool Enough," one of the many standout tracks on this marvelously moody album.
For Atkins, the past lies in Neptune City, a fading postcard of a beach town in New Jersey, south of Asbury Park and within earshot of crashing waves, seedy boardwalk carnivals, and memory's siren songs.
As Atkins slow dances with those Jersey ghosts, she mines maximum drama out of personal subjects such as dangerous love affairs ("Maybe Tonight"), lost youth ("Together We're Both Alone"), self-delusion ("War Torn"), and infidelity ("Kill The Headlights").
All of this tuneful past life regression reaches a stunning climax on the title track, an elegiac ballad soaked in quivering strings, tremolo guitars and funereal percussion, with Atkins' bigger-than-life clarion voice winging over top. "Our hearts are singing out just for you," she sings with fervor, "a cemetery song for summer."
Like another musical denizen of the Jersey Shore once did, Atkins wraps her songs in pop symphonic grandeur. The victory at sea-style arrangements echo not only Bruce Springsteen, but Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, Roy Orbison, Brill Building pop, and most prominently, the spooky soundscapes of Angelo Badalamenti, composer for David Lynch movies such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.
Curiously, Atkins found her foil for all this sonic adventure in Sweden. Producer Tore Johansson, best known for his work with the Cardigans and Franz Ferdinand, teamed with keyboardist-arranger Martin Gjerstad, sustains the nostalgic melancholy throughout while pushing each song to an emotional breaking point. It's the same kind of go-for-broke approach that Rufus Wainwright often uses.
With ten songs clocking in under forty minutes, and its sustained hypnotic mood, Neptune City is a CD that demands to be listened to like an old-fashioned LP. That is, start to finish, in its entirety, and many times over.