You don’t have to visit it to know that Jersey is a shithole. Just listen to its native sons and daughters sing: Every song is about escape, stolen dreams, or hope cast against the grim pall of reality. It’s no surprise that America’s most miserable corner produces some of its most elaborate and fantastical music.
Nicole Atkins’s Neptune City (named after her Jersey hometown) smacks you over the skull with its prepackaged sense of setting. The album places us right in the heart of the crumbling Jersey shore, where nostalgia and desperation entangle and doomed romance blossoms. It’s a song and dance we’ve heard before (a certain Jersey everyman hero-songwriter will remain unnamed).
But despite all of its heavy-handed metaphors and overripe sentimentality, Neptune City has a magical charm about it. Much of that allure stems from Atkins’s gutsy, full-bodied vocals. Her pipes meet the overblown, string-laden arrangements head on, resulting in a mix that renders even the record’s most melodramatic tunes gripping and immediate.
Atkins shows an admirable killer instinct right off the bat. Opener “Maybe Tonight” weaves all of the best swatches of romantic pop together into a swoon-inducing beast of a number. Shortly thereafter, “The Way It Is” rides some smoky Neko Case atmospherics to a crescendo big enough to fill Giants Stadium. Somewhere out there, Roy Orbison is smiling.
The album falls off a bit after that, but never completely off the map. For people who prefer their pop music with a couple lumps of irony, Atkins’s thick musical recipe may cause heavy gagging. But for all the restless dreamers out there, Neptune City is a fine antidote to the overriding cynicism that grips rock music today.