On “Waking Dream”, the fifth track of Natalie Walker’s new album, Urban Angel, she sings, “I am safe inside my head”. That phrase is a perfect description of what Walker’s music feels like. It is desolate, spacious, yet also warm and comforting. It goes everywhere at once, sometimes, mixing genres all over the place. Walker is the former lead singer of Daughter Darling, an American trip hop group. The electronic influences are apparent on this album, yet so is Walker’s folk background. Her music feels exactly like what one imagines is always rolling around in her head. Sometimes this concoction is brilliant, but quite a bit of the time the music meanders and labors.
The most striking aspect of the album is Walker’s voice, which is enchanting and brilliant and hints at a little Aimee Mann or Sarah McLachlan. Yet the one word that comes to mind most is “hollow”, which is not to say that it is empty or without heart. Rather it seems that the center is missing, and that the voice is lost in space, perpetually trying to find something that’s not there. For an album of songs evoking gloom and melancholy, the tone she strikes is absolutely pitch-perfect.
Yet the album is judged on the songs, and this is where it is a mixed bag. The album tends to drag in the middle, as many albums of rainy day glumness tend to do when the music does not have enough variance to sustain listener interest. Songs such as “Faith”, “Circles”, “Quicksand”, or “Right Here” are beautiful in their own way, but the fact they come in successive fashion is draining on the listener. There is only so much dour misery that one can handle before it becomes repetitive and difficult to sit through.
This makes the bright moments on the album stand out. The wonderful penultimate track “The End” is exactly such a moment. The soaring chorus is magnificently pop-inflected, yet none of the electronic atmosphere or melancholy is left out. Walker’s voice soars in the chorus, crooning and pleading, “Show your soul boy / Let the sun shine again / Come out from the darkness / You have your whole life to live”. Another is the first single, “No One Else”, which is based off the brilliant contrast between the menacing drum beat and Walker’s charming vocals.
At only 23, Walker has made a very good album oozing with potential. Her songs evoke a complete ambiance that almost creates its own world that the listener can get immersed in. Unfortunately, it is a world of weary sadness that won’t let up, and if only she would bring out the joy more often, she would really be on to something.