Esther Rose knows exactly who she is. And with just one listen of her sophomore album, You Made It This Far, you’ll know, too. From the first few strums on the acoustic guitar she only just picked up a few years ago, Rose brings us into her world like we’re an old friend. There’s an implicit trust that comes through in these intimate songs about coming into your own that makes us feel like we’ve known her forever, like we’re reading faded and worn entries from our own beloved diaries.
You Made It This Far feels like Rose getting to know herself and figuring out what kind of person she really is, drawing from the experiences, people, and especially places that have shaped her. There’s an aching and a longing in these songs. It lives in the pure and sweet “Three” that finds her realizing (perhaps in retrospect) just how much she appreciates her roots; it lives in the nostalgic moseying of “Five Minute Drive,” which recalls a rebellious youth and the unbreakable bond of sisters; and it lives in the stark disappointment and beautiful solitude of “Don’t Blame It On the Moon.” Each song feels like a sense memory, complete with detailed sounds and smells, of home, of coming of age, of late nights, and of the loneliness of self-discovery.
In her songwriting, Rose has a remarkable gift for creating little movies that play like sepia-tinged highlight reels. Album standout “Handyman” shows this best, as it finds her remembering, in vignettes, a blossoming relationship that carried her out of a deep, dark heartbreak. Her sense of place is especially crucial to these songs, and she deftly transports us to her home base of New Orleans (“Lower 9 Valentine,” “Sex and Magic”), to Michigan in the crisp fall and freezing winter, to the unpredictable mountain wilderness of New Mexico (“Rio en Medio”), and to the gritty streets of Los Angeles (“You Made It This Far”). Rose remains true to her twangy, bluesy roots, but You Made It This Far is also dreamy and melodic, particularly thanks to steel guitar grooves and smooth fiddle. The album was recorded live to tape, giving it a warm, unfussy quality that makes us feel like we’re right there in the room with Rose and her band.
Full disclosure, the album’s opening track “Always Changing” ushered me into my 30th trip ’round the sun this year. It sounded exactly like I felt, which lets you know Rose is about as skilled a songwriter as can be. She’s honest, bold and clever, saying so much even when she keeps things simple (and she often does). “I wrote that song as a reminder to myself,” she says. “It’s about treating yourself and those around you with kindness, looking for the best version of yourself, and striving to always do a little better next time.” You Made It This Far may not be her debut, but it is a coming out party all its own for the way it establishes Rose so firmly as the artist she was always meant to be.