The Yola of Stand For Myself would agree with her oft-quoted English clergyman Thomas Hobbes that life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short”. The dozen self-penned tracks on her sophomore release concern the fact of being alone in the world, the cruel behavior people exhibit, and the finality of death. Yola’s serious, but she’s not a pessimist. Instead, her philosophy is tinged with humor at the absurdity of it all. She’s more Hobbes the tiger stuffed animal than the dour cleric. Even when she’s complaining, it’s with a purpose. Yola wants her listeners to see the world how it is so they can rise up and change it for the better. Life may suck at times, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
As Yola proclaims on the title tune, she used to hide from life because she was afraid of the pain. Now she’s standing up for herself. That has given her the strength to do more than she ever imagined possible. There’s a hint of fragility behind the power. Yola knows things can change but refuses to remain a victim. Other people may try and bring her down. Her voice is triumphant as the song builds to a crescendo before it ends with a battle cry as she urges others to take control of their existence. And Yola knows that not everyone is her enemy. As the title “Be My Friend” reveals, she understands (with the help of Brandi Carlile on vocals) the importance of camaraderie.
Because life is tough enough, and we need allies. Don’t tell Yola everything is going to be alright. “We know it isn’t, it ain’t gonna turn out right / We know it isn’t, we know it isn’t / We know it isn’t, that’s why we gots to fight,” she insists on “Diamond Studded Shoes”. Yola does not accept the negativity. She knows the odds are stacked against her as a big, black, English woman singer with a big voice who doesn’t fit the stereotype of being a victim and generally in terms of Civil Rights and as a human being stuck in a world, not of her making. That makes her want to brawl.
It’s the simple fact that why life is brief, that gives Yola the strength to keep on pushing. In songs like “Like a Photograph”, “Breaking the Bough”, and “The Great Divide”, she sings about the importance of living in the moment because life is so momentary. She states this bluntly. “Whoever said life is like a river / That was going to roll on forever / Had to have been / Out of their mind.” Yola knows we all will run out of time and need to act in the present moment.
Critics have made much over the fact that this, her second Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) record, differs greatly in sound compared with her country blues style debut. The music ranges in style from classic soul to modern disco to folkish singer-songwriter to odd combinations of it all, often to a strong rock backbeat. No wonder she’s one of a mere handful of people who have played both the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival. But despite the trappings of production and style, there is a strong consistency between the tracks found in Yola uses her rich voice. She subtly weaves up and down the vocal registry, hinting at the various meanings found in the lyrics. She sings of mixed emotions through the way she shades her intonations. That’s what makes her so special. Yola doesn’t just belt out the words, although she can and does as needed. Her genius lies in the gradations and distinctions she makes, whether she’s biting off a long word or crooning a syllable for impact.
Yola’s first album found an adoring audience in the Americana world. She has expanded her repertoire in hopes of enlarging her fanbase. Stand For Myself should accomplish this without alienating her old enthusiasts. The dozen tracks here showcase the range of her talents as a singer and a songwriter and that of a human being who refuses to accept life’s limitations and stand up for herself.