Review | Lizzy McAlpine, prophet of the lovelorn, just wants to be friends

Lizzy McAlpine isn’t afraid of saying the quiet words out loud. Her lyrics ring like a diary: exasperated confessions of romance gone wrong, bearing all in a serene and steady voice that begs for deliverance. “There’s a hole in my heart and I can’t find the bullet,” she sang at a sold-out show at 9:30 Club on Friday. “But you sleep with the firearm / I should’ve pulled it on you.”

It felt like an acknowledgment of grief and anger that you might save for a late-night chat with an old friend, not announce to a room of 1,200 people — including your grandparents, and hers were sitting in the balcony. But at a Lizzy McAlpine show, crowd and performer are friends, and she’d like you to believe it. That effort is clear in her set design: Between her three bandmates was an approximation of a cozy apartment where such talks might occur, featuring a green couch and a gallery wall of 007 and Indiana Jones posters between faux windows. In the corner was a clothing rack, placed precisely skewed to look effortless, with a Berklee College of Music sweatshirt. (The 23-year-old singer attended the Boston school for two years before leaving amid the pandemic to pursue her music full time.)

In McAlpine’s case, this deliberate design hints to her background in musical theater, using props in her sets to add drama or punctuate a lyric. For “In What World,” off her 2021 live EP, “When the World Stopped Moving,” she sat at the piano and opened a notebook, whose words she surely didn’t need, explaining that, “I used to write songs when I was 12 years old in my basement, at my electric piano with my notebook out like this, and now I’m doing the same thing, except you wanted to be here to watch me for some reason.” When she struck the last chord, she flicked her lamp off, leaving the audience in darkness to digest a track grieving a relationship she never really wanted.

But that rehearsed theatricality didn’t stop her from offering her audience a grand catharsis. Her song “Ceilings,” subject to a TikTok trend where creators don dresses and run through open spaces, proved as much. For those in the audience who never hopped on the trend, the moment provided a release of pounding fists and unconstrained yells that were entirely more authentic than their pseudo-filmographic counterparts on social media. It was an inevitable climax of unity connected to a song so often consumed alone, scrolling TikTok.

McAlpine’s lyrics, whether they’re about falling in love, breaking up or wishing for something better, often strike with fire for a generation tainted by the gloom of a pandemic; she names universal feelings in deeply personal but ubiquitous ways.

“This next song is about ignoring red flags,” she confessed to a cheering crowd. “I hope you can’t relate, but if you couldn’t relate, I wouldn’t be here.”

The singalong was deafening as she launched into “Doomsday,” a song from her most recent album, “Five Seconds Flat,” that equates a toxic high school relationship to a repeated death, an apocalypse of the self. This newer material, full of gut-wrenching punches, outshines her older, sweeter acoustic albums. “Doomsday is close at hand / I’ll book the marching band to play as you speak,” she sang, the acidic lyrics slightly tongue-in-cheek. “ … I don’t get a choice in the matter / Why would I? / It’s only the death of me.”

It’s her relatability that both solidifies her place among and differentiates her from other prophets of the lovelorn, such as Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski. She doesn’t feel untouchable; she feels like a friend, and those afflicted by their own lonely tales of relationship-related blunders know she’s rooting for them as much as they’re rooting for her.

This is McAlpine’s first headlining tour (she opened for folk-pop singer Dodie in 2022), and the performance didn’t come without small mistakes. When she missed an early line on album standout “Erase Me,” she laughed. So did the crowd. We’re all friends, right?

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