“I’m not gonna beg / Won’t beg for you anymore.” Those are the opening lines on “The Tell”, the first song on CF Watkins’ new album, Babygirl. It’s an affirmation of empowerment and sets up this striking new album with an immediate sense of eloquence. Babygirl is the long-awaited follow-up to Watkins’ 2016 debut, I Am New, and sees her not only largely abandoning songs about fragility and romance and replacing them with odes to female friendship and homesickness. There’s a distinctive change in the overall sound of the album as well.
Working with producer and multi-instrumentalist Max Hart (War on Drugs, Katy Perry, Melissa Etheridge), Watkins largely abandons the more arty, minimalist sounds of her first album in favor of a more conventional approach. While this may seem on the surface like a dulling of the edges, the full-band sound gives the songs an enormous amount of sophistication. The result is an album filled with impeccable songwriting and a musical style that walks a thin line between country and indie pop. Watkins’ songs could not have received a more deserving treatment.
It’s apparent on many occasions throughout Babygirl that while Watkins embraces the twang of her Southern roots, she also enjoys an edgy couplet or two. “I hate this city / I can’t say exactly what makes it so shitty,” she sings on the loping, infinitely catchy “Changeable”. “But I swear I’m doing my best / To get back south.” That song, inspired by letters written between her grandparents during World War II and chronicling her grandfather’s frustration with being stationed in the Navy in the strange atmosphere of New York City, has an emotional resonance that’s carried throughout the album. While Watkins has called New York her home for several years, she still feels her roots tugging at her in songs like “Westfield” and “Dogwood”. The latter track is immersed in a delicate waltz tempo while plaintive steel guitars weep around her.
That rootsy country sound that weaves its way into so much of Babygirl is occasionally replaced by different – but no less arresting – sounds and genres. “New Hampshire”, one of the album’s many highlights, is held together by a lush electric piano and a bouncy tempo that brings to mind a deep cut from any number of acclaimed 1970s singer-songwriters. (Watkins’ jazzy vocal cadences often recall vintage Joni Mitchell). The winsome “Little Thing” has a classic, low-key country-rock feel that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac album. Hart’s many talents on various instruments give the album a suitable punch, a perfect match for Watkins’ immensely satisfying vocals and songwriting.
Babygirl closes with “White Nights”, a song inspired by a Dostoevsky short story of the same name, filled with rootsy acoustic musical touches and eloquent lyrics of affection without regret. “Marie, I’ll never regret the nights I spent with you,” she sings directly and warmly, ending Babygirl with a deeply satisfying country lullaby. CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York streets.