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Music Review: An uninhibited Gracie Abrams finds energy in the chaos on 'The Secret of Us'

This album cover image released by Interscope Records shows "The Secret of Us" by Gracie Abrams. (Interscope Records via AP)

Singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams succumbs to a crush on “Risk,” the lead single of her frantic and melancholic sophomore album, "The Secret of Us.”

“Heard the risk is drowning / But I’m gonna take it,” she sings atop fast acoustic guitar, her vocals growing more frenetic as the production thickens. “Watch this be the wrong thing,” she exclaims in the chorus.

The track reveals an evolved, but familiar, Abrams. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter has let us into her diary before, but “The Secret of Us” is more intimate and less reserved than her previous work. This time, her songs aren't recollections of waning heartbreak, long held insecurity or lingering guilt. They're happening in real time, developing and dissipating on record.

That immersion is achieved through the album’s production, a collaboration between Abrams, her longtime collaborator Aaron Dessner and co-writer Audrey Hobert, with cameos from Taylor Swift and producer Jack Antonoff.

The great “Blowing Smoke” sets a biting critique of a lost flame to acoustic guitar and hums that are traded for electric instruments and shouts, as Abrams’ quips lean into frustration.

She belts on “Let it Happen," where “Tough Love” starts with whispers on a train to Boston and ends with a euphoric drum beat and declaration of self-love: “I know now what I’m leaving for.”

Bonus track “Close to You,” produced by Sam de Jong and reworked after a clip of it went viral, lives more in the magnetic world of Lorde and Ellie Goulding's 2010s hits than it does in Abrams' own — but showcases a pop persona that peeks through on “The Secret of Us.”

The urgent melodies and breathless bridges on this confident album are progressed from Abrams' past work — when her writerly, soft-sung, “sad girl” pop music was much more wistful and anxious.

The tracks that exemplify her new personality most clearly — “Risk,” “Blowing Smoke,” “us. (feat. Taylor Swift)” — are the album’s most interesting. It’s a shift that Abrams has linked to the period of growth between her last project and this one. That year and a half included a Grammy nomination and extensive touring on her own and opening for Swift.

The album's sparkling centerpiece is “us. (feat. Taylor Swift)." Their voices weave together, harmonizing the album’s title atop a dreamy acoustic track produced by the duo, Dessner and Antonoff: “I felt it, you held it, do you miss us, us? / Wonder if you regret the secret of us," they sing, with Abrams leading.

The feature from Swift feels like a stamp of approval for Abrams. And while references to annotated sonnets and Robert Bly could place this track within Swift’s "The Tortured Poets Department," it is recognizably Abrams in its youthful and thoughtful angst — as well as those private reflections on unrequited love.

“The Secret of Us,” paints a picture of an artist in motion, one who is discovering what excites her creatively as she navigates young adulthood. And by taking listeners along for that ride — the frustrations, vanities, chaotic crushes and all — she opens an exciting door for her future as an assured and energetic performer.


AP music reviews:

Elise Ryan, The Associated Press

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