The term “excelsior” translates to “ever upward,” which makes it an apt title for Johanna Samuels’ debut album. Excelsior! is all about growth and progression — personal, political, relational — not just lyrically, but in the heady mix of wistful-hopeful arrangements that support Samuels’ storytelling. Produced with the dreamy touch of Sam Evian at his upstate New York studio, Excelsior! announces Samuels as a quiet, self-assured voice, strong and golden-hued.
Opening track “Sonny” establishes a yearning for independence that runs through Excelsior! In it, she sings about scaling a big fence in search of something new, loyalty to herself and letting things go that do not serve her. “I hope you loved me / before I was at my best,” she sings over gossamer harmonies (created all across Excelsior! with the help of Courtney Marie Andrews, Hannah Cohen, Lomelda, Olivia Kaplan, A.O. Gerber, and Maví Lou). Samuels has a gift for wordplay that distinctly captures ambivalence about the world and her place in it, particularly as a woman. “I want to be alone / more than I want to be alone with you,” she sings on “Sonny.”
On the driving, up-tempo “Nature’s Way,” it’s “trying to see you / But not be seen,” the ultimate conundrum, especially in a post-pandemic world when we’ve been hiding behind our screens for so long.
Toxic men and the ingrained pressure to please them is a common theme in Samuels’ songwriting, but she masters the defiant kiss-off with standout “All is Fine.” One of a handful of could-be breakup tunes ranging from empowering to helpless, including “The Middle” and “Less of You,” it finds her taking what’s hers and telling an ex-lover to “find another pretty girl to harmonize with … .” The latter song switches between a third- and first-person perspective as Samuels gets comfortable enough in her own skin to cut out the toxicity around her. “I rarely think about you / I couldn’t think less of you,” she says with satisfaction. “Oh to be a man / Since you’re always thinking of you / I don’t have to.” On “High Tide for One” she recalls the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford at tense hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, empathizing with the vulnerability and burden of just sharing your truth.
Fittingly, the final line of “Cathy,” the last track on Excelsior!, is “you are free.” And whether it’s meant for someone else or for herself, we feel its potency in the atmosphere long after the song has been sung.