Photo by Florencia P Marano
“There’s angels, there’s demons / it’s true we both fall somewhere in between,” sang Sunny War on “Xo,” the closer from her 2019 record Shell of a Girl. One of the L.A. singer/songwriter’s great strengths is teasing out that in-between zone, dodging easy dichotomies in everything from her oxymoronic stage name to her lyrics to the way that her rich, doubled octave vocals are more than the sum of their parts–by turns enveloping and impenetrable. She said in an interview with Trailblazer that her latest album was originally going to be a double called Red Pill / Blue Pill before some songs were diverted to her 2020 EP Can I Sit With You?
The album she released instead is called Simple Syrup, and true to form, it’s anything but–War spends its songs consciously avoiding pigeonholes, not least in simplicity and sweetness. The record opens with a gorgeous, tender lullaby in “Lucid Lucy,” then shifts hard into blues gear with a wake-up call, “Mama’s Milk.” In telling off a man, she spits: “Get a therapist, go to church if you need to / I do not exist to uplift or appease you.” Along with everything else it does, that song flat out rocks. There are gritty background vocal shouts, and her rapidfire, almost banjo-like fingerstyle guitar moves much too quick to pin down.
The character of Sunny War is too complex for that, as evidenced by another set of mirror image songs. On “Like Nina,” she balks at the profiling of Black women and the expectations set by a few household celebrity names. Immediately after, on “Kiss a Loser,” a catchy album highlight, she lays out her messiness and self-destructive tendencies to a prospective partner, and, after vomiting in the kitchen sink, invites them “Come and kiss a loser, if it’s really your kink.” It’s kind of joke, but it’s also not a joke at all, and in the telling–the instrumental all open, inky darkness for the melody to hang in–it’s as self-deprecatingly funny as it is poignant.
In each case, Simple Syrup contends with a dehumanizing world that flattens three-dimensional people with all sorts of prejudices. War pushes back on that for her own sake, but also for the people around her, as in “Deployed and Destroyed,” a story of a homeless veteran cast aside by the government he served. It’s more than a mere issue song; she renders both his situation and her narrator’s feeling of being unable to help a loved one in need with piercing, conflicted clarity.
I count at least one more distinct song pair, and you can catch it from the titles: ”Love So True” and “Love Is a Pest.” In the former, War’s yearning narrator fantasizes about finding a match in another complicated soul. In the latter, wistfulness turns to a sweet fever dream in a flutter of saxophone and wah-affected guitar, as her already-self-fulfilled narrator wrestles with the idea of making room in her life for someone who manages to walk right through her self-imposed lonerism.
Simple Syrup has a larger cast of supporting musicians than Shell of a Girl, giving the songs a depth of color even when they’re just fingerpicking underlined by bass (of course, if you can get a theremin, as War does on “Eyes,” you should always get a theremin). Like the protagonist of “Love Is a Pest,” she doesn’t need the extras per se, but they’re a welcome bonus. The songs themselves are the masterful, thorny kind that don’t leave you alone after the fact, and together with the production, they become indelible. They’re smooth in the listening, but they’re also sticky. So maybe Simple Syrup is an ironic title, but it’s also not ironic in the least.