Smoke ’em if you got ’em — that seems to be the guiding philosophy behind Lydia Luce’s debut album, Dark River. The singer-songwriter is classically trained in violin and has worked with artists from Dolly Parton to Eminem. On Dark River, she’s created an updated version of the Nashville sound: While the songs feature heavy pop synths, distorted guitars, and drum machines, the clarity of songwriting gives the album a country music sensibility.
The album’s title track, “Dark River,” is the standout song, a showcase of the power Luce brings to the table. With thrumming electric guitars and a churning, inexorable groove, you get the sense that Luce is conjuring a new universe out of sound. The song is a confident assertion of self, demanding that the people around the narrator attend to her needs.
Similarly, the confidence in “Tangled Love” is astounding. The song rests on a foundation of gentle percussion and lilting strings, while Luce’s buttery delivery would be at home in your parents’ record collection. As Luce meditates on the bonds that attach her to a toxic relationship, the song itself feels poised on a tightrope: one wrong step and the entire delicate arrangement could come crashing down. We wait with bated breath to see how the narrator will resolve their conflict, but Luce deftly guides us home.
Though the album could be most squarely filed under chamber pop, Luce explores a wide variety of styles on Dark River. “Never Been Good” is a meditative, quietly desperate, self-flagellating rocker that is reminiscent of Lydia Loveless. On the other hand, “Leave Me Empty” harnesses the sweeping, epic sounds of spaghetti Westerns to face the desolation within.
Power is a major subtext on Dark River: not so much lyrically, though the album overall explores how our relationships sour and when to bail, but as the album unfurls, you get the sense that Luce has harnessed some kind of otherworldly agent. Even as the album’s denouement plumbs the depths of sadness, Luce’s stubborn insistence on resilience allows for Dark River’s quieter moments to be just as riveting as the flashier songs. Luce, it seems, has found that power in a true sense of self, in knowing what she needs to cultivate it and what to discard.