Winona Oak‘s debut studio album, Island of the Sun, was released this June, but the singer-songwriter has been recording music since 2018, collaborating with more established acts. She graced the Chainsmokers’ 2018 dancefloor hit “Hope” with her throaty vocals. And she contributed to the award-winning house number “Beautiful” by Australian dance outfit, What So Not. For a number of years before Island of the Sun, Oak built up a respectable discography of singles and EPs. For her debut record, she gathered some of the singles from her EPs, rounding out the rest of the tracklist with some more tunes. Working with a variety of songwriters and producers, Oak has curated a lovely collection of dance-pop songs and pulsing electropop numbers that build on the fabulous creativity on her last EP, 2020’s She.
One of the most striking and noticeable things about Winona Oak is her voice. Dance-pop is often sung by either airy-voiced songbirds or leather-lunged gospel divas. Oak is neither. Instead, she has a distinct, broody croon, a husky instrument. The idiosyncratic tone of her voice gives the songs a depth of emotion and gravitas, as she imbues the tracks with a thoughtfulness. There is a chill to the tunes – even though the most four-on-the-floor songs on Island of the Sun maintain a restraint, rarely rising to the celestial, euphoric highs usually associated with dance music.
That doesn’t mean the album is glum. Though some songs operate like moody diary entries set to the music, the faster songs are remarkable, sporting some ingenious production that feels full; this isn’t a lean record. Instead, the instrumentation on Island of the Sun is thrillingly grandiose and extravagant, at times, almost cinematic. And despite the sheer amount of sound and music on the songs, Oak is never lost among the synths, drum machines, vocoder effects, or electronic instruments. That strange voice asserts itself.
Despite some of the songs being over three years old, none of Island of the Sun feels out-of-date or out-of-space. The first single from the album, which appeared on the 2020 EP, Closure, “He Don’t Love Me”, is a mournful synthpop ballad with a winding, trap beat. Over elegiac, dripping synths, Oak sings the tale of unrequited love, which started from a night of lovemaking but ended with Oak sadly noting, “I saw him kiss somebody else.” The song’s hook is the repeated use of the phrase, “He don’t love me”, sung over a shuffling, catchy melody. It becomes a dispiriting mantra.
On “Break My Broken Heart”, Oak looks to the strumming synthpop of the 1980s. With vague echoes of Kyle Dixon’s and Michael Stein’s synth-heavy work on Stranger Things, “Break My Broken Heart” is a fabulous tribute to those heartbreak synth ballads of the New Romantic movement. Oak’s expressive voice doesn’t keen or scream; instead, her plaintive warble gracefully glides on the glassy, high-tech wall of sound churned out of the studio by Julian Gillström. The heavy production is emotional and over-the-top, tipping the heartache of the tune to nearly unbearable levels. It’s the kind of sad song that is delicious and thoroughly cathartic to experience.
In “Piano in the Sky” from She, Oak grieves over the impending end of a relationship. With a (relatively) spare arrangement, the singer pairs her voice with a piano and some shimmery synths and light vocal effects. An expert on setting her pain to music, Oak pens some bruising lyrics, mining feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing, bitterly noting, “I’m tired of thinking that I don’t deserve him” and pleading to her lover to “take all of this love from me / I don’t want to feel anymore.” When she assures him that she’ll “be fine / I promise,” she does so with a quaking fragility that it sounds like she’s trying to convince herself.
So much of Island of Sun is devoted to the perils of love. Even on the breezy, bracing dance song, “Happy You’re My Ex”, there’s a poignancy that belies the seeming defiance in the lyrics. Oak’s lyrics make it sound like she dodged a bullet when the guy from the song dumped her. The idea of living well is the best revenge is Oak’s thesis on the tune and summarily slams the guy for his lack of growth and “being stuck in your same old ways.” In the rallying chorus, Oak tries to convey relief when she sings, “I’m so stupid happy that you left / And if you see me having fun / It’s all ‘cuz you’re my ex!” But the emotional music – a soundscape of sweeping synths – betrays a regret that contradicts the insolent lyrics.
Though nothing on Island of the Sun is particularly groundbreaking, it’s all still excellent. It does sound tailor-made for dance-pop radio of the past few years, so it can sound a bit derivative of what’s happening in pop music today. But that’s a minor quibble because, at its best, Island of the Sun is fantastic. It scores stories of sorrow and anguish with a thrilling cornucopia of sounds that practically spill in luscious waves. Despite the subject matter, Island of the Sun is never dour. Instead, it’s almost unbearably pretty.