“Even as a child / I was drowning in contemplation”, Michigan’s Nora Petran sings on album track ‘Dream Again’. Her debut full-length, ‘What It Takes to be a Man’ is a space for Petran to air these life-long contemplations, and a designated space for listeners to work through their own. The structures holding up these thought-streams rarely vary, usually made up of an unfurling guitar and the occasional viola strain. Yet over them, she riffs on life, its meanings, its structures, its curiosities. “Life is not a book / the more I look / the more it looks like a conversation”, she sings on closer, ‘Good Company’.
‘What It Takes to be a Man’ though is not the naive child in the back of the car asking questions on every aspect of life. Rather, it bares sharp-teeth, Petran often exhibiting a Courtney Barnett-like brusqueness. While the title-track does note the toxic aspects of masculinity that lead to high suicide rates among males, “Even when you feel like falling / you must stand son”, it’s mostly an outcry at men’s position of privilege, “I grew up with thoughts / Because no-one ever told me to turn them off” she sings, inhabiting the voice of a male. ‘No I Don’t Love You’, the only song with guitar strumming rather than plucking, sees Petran state “I think you’re stupid”, while on ‘Giving In To Time’ she bluntly declares, “She has brown eyes / I do not”.
She utilises her voice in a way not dissimilar from Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt and Regina Spector. It’s an instrument itself, layering harmonies and shapes with its acrobat-like sounds. Jessica Pratt refers to that art as a “vocal riff” and Petran is a master of it.
Explaining the album’s repeat appeal isn’t easy as the songs vary so little in structure and speed. You are sub-consciously lulled into its ether. You are like a fly resting happily on a wall, until you realise a spider has knitted a web around you. To its charms and temptations, we are totally and completely helpless.