Dark River

Mar 30, 2021
Web Exclusive

By Caleb Campbell

Nashville singer/songwriter Lydia Luce’s sophomore album, Dark River, was borne from a time of particular pain and growth. Inspired by a painful 2019 breakup, a mountain sojourn, and a near-death experience in 2020’s Nashville tornado, the record serves as a document of, and a monument to, the trials of her recent years. The resulting record is one of uncommon vulnerability, invigorating beauty, and expansive diversity.

On her sophomore record Luce takes on an exciting appetite for style and sound, exploring touches of her classical roots, bluesy ballads, driving country rock, and stark finger-picked folk. After opening with subtle brushes of guitar and swelling strings with “Occasionally” Luce dives into a stormy title track, accompanied by pounding percussion, powerhouse vocals, and touches of Americana. “Never Been Good” and “Leave Me Empty,” on the other hand, explore a more traditional take on upbeat country rock. Finally, the sweeping drama of chamber pop makes an appearance on “All the Time,” as do stark piano ballads on the closing two tracks. Luce’s sprawling approach to songwriting unites all of the styles around her luminous vocal stylings and luxuriant string arrangements.

Luce proves particularly deft at navigating the many corners of the Nashville sound, unsurprisingly since she has long been a go-to session player, providing strings for records from Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Eminem. Luce deploys those talents to great effect, centering the strings as one of the defining features of the record. Each moment is lovingly arranged as they provide pillowy accents to the record’s moments of lush chamber pop, widescreen cinematic drama to the folk rock ragers, and swelling burst of emotion to the plaintive singer/songwriter ballads. In turn, each string accompaniment contributes another layer to the rich texture of the record’s sound.

Yet, the immediate star of the record is Luce herself. She slides relatively seamlessly into country rock paces but the record’s undeniable highlights are the spotlit ballads. Tracks such as “Maybe In Time,” “Tangled Love,” and “Stones” bring spacious acoustic arrangements and flourishing melodies to the fore, allowing nothing to take attention away from Luce’s heartrending vocals. These tracks are the vulnerable core of the record, providing cohesive centerpieces around which Luce’s genre explorations expand.

That same vulnerability is also the guiding force behind the record. As Luce admits, the inception of the album came in the aftermath of a particularly tough breakup and a retreat in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. While much of the album can be read through that lens, Luce goes deeper than just a lament for lost love, instead making a record about self-discovery, growth, and authenticity. At times this results in burning and defiant moments, as on the title track. At others the reflections are stark and solitary, finding Luce at her most vulnerable moments, pleading to a God she isn’t sure is there, or confessing her tangled struggles with codependency.

Luce’s confessional honesty is what shines through most clearly on Dark River. Luce isn’t afraid to struggle, to fail, or to not have all the answers. The sprawling songwriting and sparkling arrangements take Luce’s style to new heights, centering her elegant vocals, meticulously crafted instrumentals, and unrelentingly personal lyrics. There is an undeniable sense that Lydia Luce has made something special as she processes her pain. (www.lydialuce.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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