“I know I’m not quite in the pocket genre-wise,” L. Alexandra Manuel wrote to me when sending over Amethyst Deceiver, the latest album from her piano-heavy project Sold Kingdom. Despite this warning, I gave the otherwise unpromoted release from late 2022 a try, if just because I love supporting my Virginian musicians. I thus discovered that Manuel was wrong in that most delightful way: this is absolutely my bag and it needs to be yours too.
Manuel’s own lyrics sum up why Amethyst Deceiver succeeds musically in a variety of genres: “I used to think the rules should be upheld / Whether or not I played by them myself” (“Glamorous”). Manuel knows the regulations for piano singer/songwriter music, even playing by them sometimes, but usually poisons traditional pop, folk, and cabaret with dark twists. Subtle noise, troubling synths, soul-tingling harmonies, and diminished notes turn simple melancholy into depthless despair and joy into a nightmare. What remains is the soundtrack to every horror-movie carnival stripped down to its most distilled elements.
However, this side-show doesn’t showcase macabre monsters. Manuel instead leads us through a much more frightening tour: her insecurities, struggles, and the people who subjugate under pretenses of allyship. Anyone who has struggled with neurodivergence—walking the line between self-preservation and mastering social intricacies—will see themselves in “Affliction #2” and “Practicing Sabina,” as Manuel dissects herself with equal parts criticism and compassion. I locked on immediately to “Boys Club Masquerade,” which eviscerates those who show support “only until it cramps you.” This sentiment bookends well with the devastating last track, “The Very Same Poison;” Manuel draws a throughline from how someone who suffered the same oppression could shift into an oppressor themself. In all cases, the lyrics are blunt, cutting, and perhaps sometimes too on the nose.
If I have one complaint, it’s that most tracks on Amethyst Deceiver aren’t long enough. Manuel ignores traditional pop structure for better or for worse, ending songs once she’s said all she needs. While lyrically complete, this does mean I’m switching to a new tune right as I’ve started swaying to the previous one. I’m enjoying the experience so much that I don’t want it to end, but dealing with harsh truths, including endings, definitely runs through the whole record. Perhaps Manuel is making sure I learn the lesson.
Standout Track – “Yearning for Yearning”: A two-part examination of the inability to ever feel at home with anyone, the song oozes unease. First, a disquieting acapella disconcerts with beautiful, eerie harmonie as Manuel recounts the various outside forces which leave her knowing she “will always be a stranger.” Yet the second half, focusing on how her own behavior distances her, bristles in the opposite fashion. The vocals are now more direct, as clear with us as she is being with herself, while the piano provides a wonderful discord like something out of early Das Ich. There’s a playfulness to this ghostly soundtrack—a strange creature playing with its helpless food. In this case, Manuel is both devourer and meal; we cannot dare look away as we watch.