-->
Music

Sara Watkins: Young in All the Wrong Ways

Photo: Maarten Deboer

On her third solo release, Sara Watkins struggles to find a true sense of self following the end of a relationship, resulting in a multi-level transitional exercise in soul-baring and genre-hopping.


Sara Watkins

Young in All the Wrong Ways

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2016-07-01
UK Release Date: 2016-07-01
Amazon
iTunes

At this point in the history of pop music, the breakup album could well be a genre unto itself. So prolific are songs and albums dealing with the dissolution of relationships of all types that it has virtually become something of a rite of passage for any singer-songwriter worth their salt. Taylor Swift, the current reigning queen of such things, almost seems to embark on a relationship solely in the hopes of it failing and thus providing just that much more material for her to take to the top of the charts.

Yet while her take is often more childish than anything else (see: “Mean", et. al.), there are others for whom the breakup album is a heart-wrenching experience, an emotional catharsis that finds them laying bare their fears and insecurities in the wake of an incalculable personal change. These endeavors can come in all shapes and sizes, but the best get to the heart of the issue, don’t bother with formalities or niceties and simply say what’s on their mind. Naturally, the tendency is towards the poetic, creating a romanticized version of what may have transpired, yet still retaining the inherent devastation of a significant breakup.

The gold standard of all of this in terms of mainstream pop has and likely always will be Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, an album that not only took each band member to task for their respective infidelities, but always shot to the top of the charts for an almost unfathomable amount of time given the album’s subject matter. And while the strength of Rumors lies not only in its lyrical jabs but memorable melodies, it retains a clear stylistic and aesthetic direction throughout, creating a fully-realized album rather than a collection of thematically similar songs.

Sara Watkins wastes no time in letting people know that her latest album, Young in All the Wrong Ways is a post-breakup, post-label shakeup, identity crisis in the making. From the opening title track’s surging, aggressive chorus vocals through to the delicate, almost defeated moments of a song like “Invisible,” Young finds Watkins searching for a voice that best represents where she is now. That she’s able to run through so many stylistic iterations comes as little surprise, given the genre-hopping of Nickel Creek and her own solo work. But in attempting to establish a new direction, a new voice for herself, she seems at a loss as to who she really is.

It's not that these songs are bad by any means. In fact, Young is a stellar collection of songs ranging in emotion from rage to sadness to defeat to contentedness, all impeccably produced and performed. Rather there's simply so many different musical ideas and identities going on that it too often plays more like someone casually scanning the radio dial than a cohesive artistic statement. Without question Watkins is an impressive vocalist and songwriter, something she displays with aplomb throughout the album. But her overly eager attempt to show off everything of which she is capable ultimately ends up detrimental to the album as a whole, confusing the overall tonality and subsequently coming off as the transitional album that it truly is.

Yet it's hard to fault someone this emotionally vulnerable and open. On the title track, she takes her former flame to task, plainly stating, “I’ve got no time to look back / So I’m going to leave you here” and “You were my future but that’s in the past / You’ll get another and it might last.” Similarly, the plaintive ballad “The Love That Got Away” features lines like, “If you live long enough / You start to think about a list of / What you would do differently” and, on “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free", "I believe that he believes / Every word that he’s been saying.” Taken out of context, these lyrics appear as though cribbed from a jilted teen’s diary. But when wrapped in Watkins’ impressive musicality and nuanced performance throughout, the occasional triteness of the sentiments being expressed manage to transcend their lyrical simplicity and become something far more affecting.

And from that standpoint, Young is an accomplished work of an artist in transition. While thematically of a piece, the front half of the album relies on too great a stylistic juxtaposition to be successful. Fortunately, Watkins seems to find her footing on the album's back half, delivering a solid set of songs that flow seamlessly from one to the next. In this, Young plays out almost as a real-time documentation of the post-breakup rollercoaster of emotions. You can almost feel the ebb and flow of anger and frustration giving way to sadness and longing before finally resolving to take matters into her own hands and simply move on.

"Say So", a track that functions as something of a demarcation point between sides, is a powerfully emotional performance that sits right in Watkins' stylistic sweet spot, mixing hints of Americana with knowing singer-songwriter pathos. It's one of several musical high points that helps to lift the album above its own personal identity crisis, touching on where she’s been and where should could potentially find herself once the dust settles.

In the meantime, Young in All the Wrong Ways is a frustratingly complex set of simple emotional sentiments render in an array of styles that finds its creator struggling to come to terms with where she is personally, professionally and, most importantly, emotionally. In that, Watkins succeeds in creating a modern-day breakup album that feels more like a true emotional catharsis than calculated cash-in. And for that, we can all be thankful.

7
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less
TV

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

Keep reading... Show less
6

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image