Singer-songwriter Samantha Crain released her fifth full-length album You Had Me at Goodbye in March 2017 (though wonderful debut EP The Confiscation should count in some manner), moving from folk-rock into more indie rock-influenced terrain. By the following summer, it seemed like she was saying farewell. Multiple car accidents combined with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome left her unable to play music. She struggled through a personal crisis and physical recovery and created a new set of songs. Crain’s latest release, A Small Death, comes as a little rebirth. Crain hasn’t reinvented herself – the album makes sense in the arc of her career – but its focus and intensity come from an artist with a rediscovered voice.
Opening track “An Echo” provided some of the impetus for the album. Crain has spoken about the way that song came to her and provided motivation. The singer’s resilience comes through; she finds peace as she’s taken care of, even if she never gets the conversation she’d like to have. The song carries both weight and release, and as she lets go, she situates the rest of the album in a spot that’s neither easy nor hopeless.
That beginning makes sense because many of these songs demand something of the listener. “Reunion” takes a levelheaded look at a high school reunion, complete with everyone’s struggle to deal with their shortcomings. As with “An Echo”, steel guitar fills in the spaces for the singer, driving the mood. “High Horse” deals with the “shape of a great heartache”, and “Joey” questions memory and identity. These moments come summed up in “Tough for You”, where Crain, reflecting on a childhood experience, hides her pain and buttons up a (literally) injured lip to show her strength.
Now, though, she finds strength through spoken recognition. Much of the counterbalancing uplift of the album comes as she learns who she truly is, part of a process connected to the temporary loss of her artistic identity. “Pastime” sings of a new romance, but it’s a metaphor for a love that looks inward. When Crain sings, “It feels like you were always there”, she could be (and probably is) talking to herself. The song pushes the most into pop music of any cut on the album, and its joyful bounce expresses that lightning that occurs with true self-discovery.
With new-found freedom, Crain can sing an anthem-like “When We Remain”, mixing a verse of Choctaw with a verse of English. Even in a future death, Crain tells us, we can find optimism. In “Holding to the Edge of Night”, she can find solace in smaller moments, like the pleasure of evening ending. Crain closes the album with “Little Bits”, where she finds she can be comfortable with her own story. “I’ve gotten over the shame in little bits,” she sings. “Fewer moments where I start humming out loud to drown out the replayed uncomfortable past.” On A Small Death, we listen to an artist come through years of struggle, but she doesn’t just survive. Crain finds a new direction by looking in and doing hard work internally, and then she offers us her path.