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Listen Closely to Frankie Cosmos

The singer-songwriter may not be a precocious young star anymore, but she has more to say than ever

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The vast back catalog of Frankie Cosmos—the prolific, New York–based indie-pop project founded and fronted by Greta Kline—does not resemble a traditional discography so much as a serialized comic strip. Characters recur (the star-crossed lovers Ronnie and Frank; the now-deceased dog Joe Joe), old plot lines are subtly referenced, and a cartoonish, episodic quality pervades the whole enterprise. (She’s self-released so many songs on Bandcamp, too, that you almost need an ongoing monthly digest to keep up with her output.) One of the most distinct indie songwriters of her generation, Kline writes with a gimlet eye for detail and a sneakily melancholy sense of humor. “I could be thrilling, if you are willing to overlook a few things,” she sang to a potential suitor on her first official album, Zentropy, released when she was 19. “I am crazy; I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Zentropy had a world-weary, wise-beyond-its-years perspective, and much of the early conversation around Kline hinged on her youth and precocity—a teenager wrote these twee Frank O’Hara poems disguised as songs? (In retrospect, of course she did. Never forget that few people have more of an eye for the romantic poetry of the everyday than teenage girls.) But Kline, ever self-aware, knew that the glow of being the New Young Thing wouldn’t last long. When Pitchfork asked, in 2016, what had changed between her first and second albums, she replied, “Well, I’m no longer an exciting young teen, just a normal 20s person trying to be a musician.”

Vessel, the third proper Frankie Cosmos record, finds Kline asserting to the listener that she is not a cartoon character so much as a fully embodied human being. The fatigue, sorrow, and frustration she expresses on this album don’t often come wrapped in punch lines as they might have on earlier releases. “My body is a burden, I’m always yearning to be less accommodating,” she sings on the gently galloping “Accommodate,” a song that rails against the concessions women are expected to make to the feelings of other people around them. The bristling “Apathy” finds a malcontented Kline fantasizing about becoming a telephone pole, “wishing that I had a clear purpose that I was designed for,” as she told Pitchfork. On “I’m Fried,” a dreamy ode to fatigue and the difficulties of self-care, she sighs, “I just wanna know that I would walk away from wrong.”

Love—or at least the possibility of it—is always a salve. There’s a swoony, introverted-romantic quality to Kline’s slower songs; Frankie Cosmos sometimes sounds like prom music made for people who stayed home from the prom. “Duet” is a perfect example: “Making a list of people to kiss,” she sings amid an atmosphere of under-the-sea twinkle. “The list is a million You’s long.” Even as she’s amassed a devoted following, Kline’s songs have a defiant outsider charm and a professed disinterest in the trappings of her time and her peers. “I’m not like anyone else my age,” she sings, sounding not boastful so much as lonely. “My Phone” honors the kind of connection that goes deeper than a glowing screen: “Real love obviously goes infinitely deeper than technology,” she’s explained, “and you should be able to feel loved by someone, give love, and have them trust you without having to constantly be texting.” As barbed as they are with Kline’s mordant wit, Frankie Cosmos songs are, at their core, earnest enough to espouse an almost holy reverence for love, friendship, and the simple joys of playing music.

My favorite song on Vessel is “Being Alive,” which moves at a furiously fast pop-punk pace—it reminds me of the best of Kline’s twee-pop forebearers, like the spunky British bands Heavenly and Talulah Gosh. The lyrics are alarmingly open-hearted: “Being alive matters quite a bit, even when you feel like shit,” Kline sings. Then each other band member takes a turn singing the line, too, as if to affirm the life-saving powers of togetherness and friendship. As she’s matured from a precocious teen wonder to, in her words, “a normal 20s person trying to be a musician,” Kline hasn’t lost an ounce of what initially made her perspective unique. On Vessel, she’s never sounded stronger, smarter, or more alive.