The moniker “Bishop Briggs” doesn’t call to mind images of British pop-rock stardom. Instead, it conjures the spirit of a dusty old country music sodbuster, lip bedecked by a mustache that’d do Sam Elliott proud, cold-singing the song of bucolic America with an acoustic guitar in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other. But Sarah Grace McLaughlin, aka Bishop Briggs, grew up in London and took the name of the Scottish town her mom and dad hail from as her stage name. Instead of Americana ballads, we’re treated to fist-pumping pop anthems about picking oneself up after being knocked down, whether that’s figuratively or literally.
As fun as it is to play free association bingo with Briggs’ chosen appellation, the implied toughness does suit her well for the performative strength expressed throughout her new album, CHAMPION. The record matches strutting, declarative percussion with the swelling choral elements of arena rock, layering both on a throughline of vulnerability. There’s a sobering badassery in Briggs’ marriage of aesthetic and naked self-exploration, the kind that invites a listening audience to bop their heads while doing soul-searching of their own, even if only on a subconscious level. Realizing personal introspection with the album blaring at the same time is a challenge: If CHAMPION can be distilled into a single word, that word is “loud,” whether in decibels or overdetermined wordplay.
Take “Jekyll & Hide,” CHAMPION’s sixth track, an undisguised riff on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic about a man of science so ashamed of his own urges and drives that he devises a serum to suppress them; you’ve read the book, and you know the poor sod’s moral enterprise goes terribly awry. Briggs bases her song on the concept of dual identity, not in herself but in a romantic partner, which makes sense: CHAMPION is, after all, a breakup album, and in intimate relationships, there’s little more terrifying than the realization that the person you think you know has another side to them that’s in conflict with the side you’re familiar with. But she gives the game away by spelling out her intentions in the title. Awful homonym aside, “JEKYLL & HIDE’s” big, swinging drum track carries fuzzy distortion verging on spooky works, which makes said homonym feel even more unnecessary.
Equally as moving as “JEKYLL & HIDE” (but in a totally different key and nowhere near as obvious), is “TATTOOED ON MY HEART,” more inspired by gospel and soul than grit and angst. Here, the chorus lifts heavenward, a proclamation of deep, ultimately liberating regret. CHAMPION’s thesis is about recovery—you fall in love, then out of love, and you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you start again. Briggs gets at the truth of broken relationships. Allowing another person into your life is a permanent action. Even when they leave, they never really go away. CHAMPION’s very existence proves it.
Maybe Briggs misnamed the album. “TATTOOED ON MY HEART” demonstrates her central idea well enough, both tonally and lyrically, that she might’ve been better off using it as the title track; the same could be said of “SOMEONE ELSE,” the most distinct song on the whole album, one that’s mournful, tender, unadorned and consequently open-hearted. Taken together, both songs serve Briggs’ purpose better than “CHAMPION”—they drill down to the core dynamics of separation and the impact leaving your partner has on your sense of self as well as your self-worth. “All I wanna do is be alone / Write a song, by myself / All I wanna do is be alone / Lose my phone, be someone else,” she opines, leading into “Someone Else’s” chorus. But even when you’re alone, you’re never really alone. You’re entwined with your own memories of the time you gave to your ex.
“CHAMPION” functions as a rousing fight song, and for Briggs, the fight back to self is the worthier part of her post-breakup journey. But CHAMPION, taken as a whole, functions more successfully as painfully honest introspection, 10 tracks worth of the singer working through an endless parade of complex and conflicting emotions. There’s a bit of an identity crisis at play here, and that crisis knocks the record down a few pegs. But Briggs’ struggles through her anguish and isolation were clearly worth the effort, and CHAMPION is worth a listen.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.