“Somebody stop me,” Samia begs as she walks into the middle of the party, overcome by the sudden urge to write a poem. The Nashville-via-NYC singer-songwriter’s striking 2020 debut The Baby was praised for its unflinchingly honest and confessional style of writing, but Samia knows how easily those same qualities can be perceived as excruciating – and she’s been a part of the music industry long enough to have learned what the expected paths of growth are. Pare it back; diversify; write about someone else, for a change; mature. That line is from the song ‘Amelia’, which on its own does a decent job of playing by those rules; there’s a self-aware irony to the moment that shields away emotional embarrassment, and it’s one of the pleasantly dancier tracks on her sophomore LP, Honey. (Plus, it’s named after her tourmate Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, at whose studio she recorded the album – and if you can throw in a reference to the community of coincidently famous friends you’ve made along the way, that’s a bonus.) Except that it’s also joyfully, wholeheartedly earnest, and until you get to that point on the record… oh boy.
Honey throws a lot at you – it’s not the 1975 levels of baffling versatility, but it’s closer to that than the introspective songwriters she was initially compared to. (Maybe those two types of indie are converging anyway.) Not only does Samia double down on both vulnerability and playfulness, but rather than always trying to reconcile the two, she makes her torn ambivalence the central conceit of the album, which mostly alternates between searing ballads and gentle indie pop cuts. If The Baby was seamless and elegant in its expression of overwhelming emotions, Honey allows itself to be messier and a bit more careless, and so may be the lesser record. But it’s a bold move that yields impressive results, and its resonance is amplified the more you settle into its uneven perspective.
One reason it works is that, once again, the too-muchness never overshadows Samia’s personality, but instead is filtered out of it. Her thoughts are brutally raw when she begins to trace them on ‘Kill Her Freak Out’, admitting her vicious jealousy over chilly organ tones. She’s still subtle and intentional in her use of instrumentation: the backdrop of ‘Pink Balloon’, another ballad, is similarly stark, but its delicate piano betrays a different kind of desperation. Between them, ‘Charm You’ elicits an air of groundedness but still lives in the realm of fantasy: “What if we could shut up for an hour or two/ Quiet, memorizing what the people do/ Wouldn’t have to try and find myself in you.” The dichotomous pattern continues with the breezy electropop of the Rostam-assisted ‘Mad at Me’ and blends into ‘Sea Lions’, arguably Honey‘s emotional apex. It starts out spare before a dance beat pulls it in a hazier yet still pensive direction, ending with a stream of free-associative words seemingly plucked from voicemail messages.
Considering 2021’s Scout proved the EP format is a good fit for Samia’s intimately poignant songwriting, this could have made for an interesting finale. Despite its disorienting structure, Honey is also, on the whole, even more minimal than The Baby, and many artists would struggle to keep it engaging any longer. But the gnawing anxiety bleeding through the album takes many forms, and Samia’s attention to detail – not to mention her piercing vocals – accentuates them in captivating ways. The pattern doesn’t break so much as the mood shifts, with the folky ‘To Me It Was’ ushering a kind of graceful positivity. But then we get ‘Breathing Song’, and if you caught the ambigious mention of “an accident in the bathroom” on ‘Pink Balloon’, then the way this story unfolds – bleeding on the way to the ER, the question “It wasn’t mine, right?,” her autotuned wails of “No no no” – will leave you with a knot in the gut.
As visceral as it is, ‘Breathing Song’ isn’t framed as a confession – Samia’s backstage at the Greek Theater, trying to stop the memory from taking ahold of her. The song might as well have spilled out of her that very night, yet its placement on Honey feels purposeful, allowing its four-track, warm-spirited conclusion to draw out naturally. Like the album, it’s not the sign of an artist indulging in sentimentality but rather exercising control, a goal that seemed entirely out of reach at the start of the record but ultimately feels possible and earned. “You’re my favorite friend/ Maybe when we’re older/ It’ll still be like this,” she sings dreamily on ‘Nanana’, and you can’t help but notice the change in her – the real, hopeful kind.