Nick Bollinger wallows in the lovelorn verses and soaring choruses of classic popsmith Nicole Atkins
There’s no question, pop music in 2017 sounds different from the way it did in 1967. But here’s a new record that might have been more recognisable as pop back then than it is today.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the fourth album Nicole Atkins has made since her debut a decade ago. That first record - titled Neptune City, after the New Jersey borough she grew up in - introduced her sweeping voice, her love of a big sound and a sensibility closer to that of, say, Laura Nyro than Katy Perry.
Not surprisingly, her success has been more on the scale of a a Laura Nyro than a Katy Perry too. But if her pen hasn’t produced any hits – not even for others, as Nyro’s did – she has continued to make her own sophisticated, ambitious records. And in many ways this latest one is her best yet.
It’s a pleasure hearing arrangements like these, with just the right balance of busyness and breathing space, and a band slick enough to carry it off. And amongst all this conspicuous competence, Atkins stands out with her big dramatic delivery.
There’s a theme that runs through these songs, and it might be the classic musician’s dilemma: what do you do to get through the down times? And what do you do when that doesn’t work any more? Positioned in the middle of the album, ‘Colours’ – with its stark piano and string arrangement - is a dark and pivotal piece. And it’s not the only song here in which Atkins directly addresses a battle with the bottle.
But if Atkins extracts something melodramatic from these self-loathing scenarios, she also has the ability to step aside from them. And in ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’, the album’s title song, she does that literally, singing to herself in the second person. She even gives that self a new name, Rhonda Lee, which perhaps makes it easier for her to bid that unwanted persona good night.
Atkins may be dramatising situations she is familiar with, yet ultimately Goodnight Rhonda Lee is as much about song-craft as catharsis. The insecurity and self-doubt in these songs is surely born of personal experience, but the effect is hardly gloomy or depressing. And for every moment of downbeat introspection there’s a horn part, a steel guitar or just a well-honed melody to lift you up again.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee is available on Single Lock.