The curse of the sophomore slump haunts every artist’s second release. But the pressure was higher than usual for indie-pop singer-songwriter Samia Finnerty, known professionally by her first name. Her debut record, The Baby (2020), received critical acclaim and was beloved by fans, so the hype was high when Samia began teasing her newest album, Honey, in the fall of 2022. Would the New York-based artist be able to top her first at-bat? I’ll cut to the chase: yes. Many of Honey’s tracks deal with The Baby’s central question: how does one walk the line between concealing and revealing? But now, narrative arcs are tighter, images more compelling, and Samia’s instincts regarding which sparse details to include for maximum emotional impact are sharpened.
Speaking one’s mind is central in Honey’s opening track and lead single, “Kill Her Freak Out”. The song’s first verse introduces us to the supercut of uncanny imagery that shows the 26-year-old lyricist at her best. But it’s not until the soaring chorus that unearths the kicker: “I hope you marry the girl from your hometown / And I’ll fucking kill her, and I’ll fucking freak out.” The sentiment, which somehow sounds more self-sabotaging than aggressive, is as sharp as a knife wound. When warbling bass synths come in under the second verse, they feel like the swooping sensation in one’s stomach during vulnerable moments.
While Honey‘s second track, “Charm You”, takes a different sonic approach – think living room jam sesh – the lyrics address a similar insecurity: can anyone love our true selves? If the song’s refrain, “I don’t wanna charm you”, hints at a yearning for sincere intimacy, the final lines of the outro suggest otherwise. “I don’t wanna charm anyone this time / I don’t wanna make anybody mine / Mostly it’s just I don’t wanna end up crying / I don’t wanna charm you,” Samia croons over gentle drums and twinkling eclectic guitars, revealing the speaker’s reversion to isolation.
But soon, glints of confidence start to flash like light reflecting off a mirrorball, especially in tracks like “Mad at Me” and “Sea Lions”. The former, a duet featuring Minneapolis-based artist papa mbye, is an exuberant joyride of an anxiety-turned-dancefloor anthem. With production from Rostam Batmanglij, the song paints a portrait of someone completely unbothered by others’ perceptions. Initially, “Sea Lions”, the following track, seems like a sharp turn from this self-assurance; in the first verse, over haunting piano chords, Samia sings, “You said when I come on the radio, it makes you want to die / Well, if I shut up, can I come inside?” Listeners may be so distracted by the crystalline quality of Samia’s voice that it’s easy to miss the shift from keys to synths, setting up for the delicious transition into the song’s second act: an unabashed explosion into pure dance party glee.
Well before Honey is halfway over, Samia’s distinct vocal and lyrical styles establish the record as a standout. Then, we arrive at “Breathing Song” and “Honey”, released as A and B sides of a single on 24 January. Nothing better sums up the project’s dichotomy of honesty versus illusion than these successive songs. The gut-wrenching “Breathing Song” tells the story of a sexual assault, an attempted confrontation with the attacker afterward, then an ostensible panic attack while recounting the incident to a friend. It’s a lot to cover in a song that clocks in at less than three and a half minutes, and I can think of a lot of ways in which such a big swing might have missed, but that couldn’t be further from the reality of the album’s crowning jewel. In a single-word chorus that changes meaning in the context of each verse, Samia uses a grating autotune to evoke the dissociation that comes with recalling past traumas. It is harrowingly raw, even by the standards of a notably confessional songwriter. Despite writing this in late January, I am confident I’ll see this song again on several year-end best lists.
Before there’s time to recover from “Breathing Song’s” devastation, enter: “Honey”, a sharp cut to flouncy, upbeat guitars and optimistic lyrics. “Got a good feeling about this weekend”; “I’ve got my girls and a hopeful heart / …whatever you want, it’s at the bar.” If I wasn’t listening too closely, it’s the type of song I could picture myself dancing to with my friends at Baby’s, the Brooklyn bar and dance venue referenced in the song (which also makes a clever allusion to Samia’s debut). But then, tucked away so neatly in the final lines of the final verse that you might miss it, comes a sickening twist: “All you can do in this hotel room is fantasize / All you can do when he needs you is close your eyes.”
Suddenly, Samia’s claim on Instagram that this song and “Breathing Song” “tell the same story” flashes into sharp focus. The singles, then, serve as two sides of the same grief-stricken coin: one where pain is confronted head-on, one where it’s reduced to a mere afterthought by dancing, alcohol, and the sweet distraction of sweeter friends. Samia has stood this entire song on its head in a dozen words, which feels doubly significant considering it’s the album’s titular track. That’s the thing about honey, after all: it’s certainly sweet, but if you’re not careful, it leaves a sticky mess. Perhaps Honey, then, is not an ode to life’s sugariness, but its staying power: once words are said, or experiences are had, or feelings are felt, it’s impossible to reverse their impact. But what’s wrong with trying to find the sweetness therein once you accept that?
If The Baby announced Samia as a vocalist and songwriter to watch, Honey makes it clear that we’ll be watching her for a long time. With ample self-awareness and a keen sense of the surreal, Samia has delivered a sonically dynamic voyage through the monstrous and merciful extremes of intimacy. Even though life can be hard to scrub off, there’s always something to learn in looking back. As Samia sings on Honey’s centerpiece, “To Me It Was”: “How much better can anything get / than sitting on your porch remembering it?”