Pretty Sick (Sabrina Fuentes) isn’t afraid to admit she’s a little caught in between a lot of things. Somewhere between missing her hometown of New York City and embracing her new life in London, between true love and a toxic relationship, between sobering up and spending one more night at her usual dive bar, between letting go and holding on despite her knuckles turning white from the strain. On Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile, out now on Dirty Hit, Fuentes embraces all of the contradictions and confusion of wanting to say it’s alright, but knowing you should probably be saying goodbye.
Amidst a heavy dose of grungy ‘90s nostalgia, Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile allows Fuentes to pull at the threads of the web of feelings she started to spin on 2020’s Deep Divine and 2021’s Come Down. Still stuck, she isn’t trying to find the line between obsession and desire, or self-sacrifice and self-sabotage. She isn’t trying to make sense of these shattering emotions, and isn’t in the mood to compartmentalize them, or cut herself off from the crossed wires of devotion and deception. She’s content to just own them.
Whether it’s the soft strings on “Black Tar,” or the Bikini Kill-inspired riffs on “Heaven,” Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile is able to tap into a visceral pain that hurts the same no matter how Fuentes delivers it. The fact that she can access this longing and devastation in so many ways makes the album even more poignant. It makes her ambivalence feel ubiquitous—despite pounding percussion and blown-out basslines, there’s no way around it.
This suffocating sense lends itself to 12 heavy-handed tracks that bring an intensity only matched by Fuentes’s crushing confessionals. She twists the knife with lyrics like, “If you think I’m pretty I can be real easy / Cause I miss him with my whole chest / That’s the way it’s always been,” that she pairs with somber violins on “Self Fulfilling Prophecy.” Other times, it’s the desperate shouts she dissolves into, like on “Drunk,” that express her undying urgency. At her most vulnerable, she uses her opaque, post-punk-like armor to protect her most fragile feelings and delicate admissions.
Pretty Sick punctures the hefty distortion and overdrive with the occasional flash of tenderness, expressed through dainty violins or the slight tremble in Fuentes’ voice when she arrives at an especially tough truth. This duality is best observed via the layered vocals on album opener “Yeah You,” which speak to the circles she swirls in, the competing things she feels, and the fact that sometimes there are no coherent conclusions to come to. Simultaneously comforting and confrontational, the best part of Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile is that there’s nothing crystal clear about it.
Instead, there’s a density to the record that reinforces the way these situations make your head spin, as the songs escalate from talking about being even-toned and teary-eyed in the back of a bar to her voice raspy from pleading by the end of “PCP.” Just like the twists and turns that her songs take, Fuentes’ lyrics concede to the way one’s feelings change, one moment swearing to leave it in the past and the next searching for a reason to reach out and reconcile.
This unabashed recognition of just how complicated relationships are is what makes the album so raw. Fuentes distills the dark side of love that we also have to embrace, the grip that the wrong one can keep on us, and how we go about relinquishing it without losing ourselves in the process. Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile is the soundtrack to the nights we spend wrestling with if we should forgive them or just forget the whole thing. Instead of trying to neatly package the mess we make, Pretty Sick create something that sounds as massive as the way it all feels.
Samantha Sullivan is a former Paste Music intern and writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached on Instagram @fangirlpurgatory.