Faded love and the struggle to move on after a relationship dies take center stage on Nicki Bluhm’s powerful Avondale Drive. Balancing self-help pep talks and laments about an ex, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter crafts a vivid, unsparing portrait of a heart in flux. The tug-of-war between overwhelming sadness and flickering optimism is never less than gripping.
While such relatable material offers ample opportunity for cheesy melodrama, Bluhm stays grounded, relying on a voice that feels instantly familiar, even if you don’t know her previous decade-plus of work. Bolstered by the understated country-pop production of Jesse Noah Wilson, who plays a host of instruments and co-writes some songs, Bluhm mixes Bonnie Raitt’s earthy purr, Sheryl Crow’s stoner grace, and a hint of Neko Case’s cool poise, capturing the vibe of an intimate talk with a friend.
The breezy leadoff track, “Learn to Love Myself,” bears traces of therapy language in stressing the mindful pursuit of mental health, a topic revisited throughout Avondale Drive. The languid “Sweet Surrender” asserts the need to “let go of what you don’t know / All things you can’t control” — sensible advice for anyone embroiled in life’s challenges — just as the twangy “Fool’s Gold” warns of “the illusion of control.” Against a bracing ’70s funk backdrop, Bluhm wails, “Can I ever change?” on “Feel,” then concludes, “One day I find … I’ve changed,” indicating that all her difficult self-care is paying off.
Anticipating a fresh start, she turns playful in the slinky “Love to Spare,” telling a prospective lover she’s not ready to commit, saying, “I might love you darling / But it won’t be today.” On the bluesy toe-tapper “Friends (How to Do It),” a duet with Oliver Wood, Bluhm emphatically declines new entanglements, sighing, “A woman of my age is tired / Of playing a young man’s game.”
Elsewhere, the raw anguish displayed on a couple of tracks makes for distinctly uncomfortable listening, suggesting Bluhm has a ways to go before she’s healed. Highlighted by James Pennebaker’s mournful fiddle, “Juniper Woodsmoke” looks back at good times gone. She asks, “Who says it’s a failure? / Ten years ain’t worth nothing,” but admits, “We may never ever settle the score,” unable to find closure. Even bluer, the abject “Leaving Me (Is the Loving Thing to Do)” bleakly proclaims, “You’re already gone, so go.”
Bluhm strives to close Avondale Drive on a positive note with the thumping “Wheels Rolling.” Showing a bit of swagger, she exclaims, “Quit looking out and get to looking in,” trying to talk herself into a better frame of mind. To her credit, she doesn’t sugarcoat the truth or pretend to be fine, though she’s headed in the right direction. Hopefully good news awaits in the next chapter of her story.
Avondale Drive is out June 3 on Compass Records.