A study in heartbreak from a major new talent…

It’s the golden age of female pop singer-songwriters - that’s scientific, totally unbiased fact. Exhibit A for this week will no doubt be the second chapter in Taylor Swift’s fascinating inversion of the music industry, as she releases the rerecording of 'Red' – but there’s a powerful argument to be made that Katelyn Tarver’s who you should be listening to.

Tarver’s new album 'Subject To Change' is technically her second, but given her first was released 16 years ago it’s probably fairer to call this a re-debut than a sophomore. In the meantime, she’s brought out a flurry of great EPs, collaborated with Childish Gambino’s producer Ludwig Göransson, and co-penned a UK #1 single for Cheryl Cole ('Crazy Stupid Love'). That kind of career path would usually lay the tracks for a “high pop” full-length, bursting at the seams with featured rappers and echoing whatever dance-pop sub-genre is currently doing the rounds.

Instead, what we get is a consciously, containedly low-key record – one that owes as much to country and folk as it does to pop. The production is deft without ever being showy, subtle without being “stripped-down” or unfinished-sounding. And with songs as good as these, that’s the perfect approach.

Take the opening track, 'Back To You'. “I think I’m hitting a wall,” sings Tarver, gently ushering in an exceptional ballad that speaks to the pain and pleasure of relationships, the “sink or swim” that comes with committing yourself to someone. This is a theme that threads its way through the album, where lost opportunities, challenging compromises and ambivalent unions make up a tapestry so consistently woven that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Tarver’s world is compelling and reassuring in its relatability even when it’s at its most bleak – a fact that’s proven by the 58 million times people have listened to her 2017 single 'You Don't Know' on YouTube, about the uselessness of consoling someone after a difficult break-up.

Sometimes that bleak worldview can fall a little flat, as it does on the lead single 'Shit Happens', which seems to carry the message that we should all convert to atheism as nothing has any meaning. But for most of the album it succeeds, in no small part due to Tarver’s delivery. Her voice is light and listenable in the best way, clear as a bell, with an appeal that’s not unlike that of Maggie Rogers – or, indeed, Taylor Swift. 'Out Of Excuses' brings that 'folklore' / 'evermore' Tay-Tay influence to the surface, with a beautifully written reflection on guilt and betrayal. But where Swift is all about narrative precision – the scene-setting, the characters, the scenario – Tarver’s talent lies in finding the emotions between the lines, through vignette-like songs that are affectingly simple in their approach.

The highlight is 'Nicer', which at first glance – “I used to be nicer… That shit makes you tired” – seems to fit into the trope of songs which rightly attack the pressure on women to seem “kind” (read: submissive) in every situation. But Tarver’s delivery transforms this into something different and oddly uplifting, a track which doesn’t so much celebrate niceness’ opposite as resign itself to it. (“Look at all the time and energy I wasted,” she quietly laments in the chorus.) It’s this spirit that animates so many of the songs on this album, and gives them a sensitivity and honesty that’s all the more relatable for acknowledging that we aren’t our perfect selves, and that trying to be perfect all the time – whether that means being nice or being tough – is frankly too much of an effort for anyone.

This delicacy keeps the album’s theme of heartbreak from being layered on too thick, and allows it to blossom into multiple forms. There’s heartbreak that’s happened, as with 'Hurt Like That' and 'Shit Happens' – but there’s also the fear of heartbreak that hasn’t happened yet, as in the case of 'All Our Friends Are Splitting Up', a song which suggests that all love is simply a deferred break-up. This seems an unreasonably depressing worldview until you’ve listened to 'Subject To Change', and let Tarver’s voice seduce you into sharing her perspective, or at least relating it to your own. That’s a rare power. It’s the main reason that 'Subject To Change' feels not like a sophomore but like the announcement of a major new talent, and its lightness – in timbre, in tone, and in length – like a tantalising promise for meatier things to come.


Words: Tom Kingsley

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