Once every few years, a commanding new voice starts to sound like it’s everywhere, cropping up in coffee shops, indie movies, and music blog “discovery” lists. These voices make you stop talking or typing and just listen, trying to feel out the quirks and contours that make it new. In 2008, Florence Welch shook the earth with her vibrato on “Kiss With a Fist;” in 2012, Brittany Howard’s emotive rasp lit up South By Southwest as her band Alabama Shakes introduced “Hold On.” Perhaps the paradigmatic twenty-first-century example would be Adele’s raw, occasionally imperfect belt, which rocketed the singer from the depths of MySpace to superstardom in just a few years. We are, perhaps, overdue for another one of these—not just a competent, pleasing voice as most successful singers possess, but rather an assertive presence that grabs you by the shoulders and gives you a good shake.
Building on the success of her first single “Lost Without You” in the U.K., Freya Ridings seems poised to further this lineage if she can capture appeal beyond her home country. A piano ballad with a simple, repetitive chord structure, the song might have languished at the bottom of Indie and Adult Contemporary charts had it been sung by someone else. Instead, thanks to Ridings’ striking vocal instrument, “Lost Without You” became one of 2018’s top 20 most downloaded songs in the U.K. and the biggest hit from a new British female artist—not bad for a track with no beat. Ridings’ vocal melodies shape-shift between a falsetto as delicate as a Fabergé egg and a lower register as round and sturdy as the hull of a ship. She dexterously traverses this range, making every modulation look easy and every note sound resonant and pure.
The singer-songwriter’s debut LP, Freya Ridings, combines six previously released singles and six new offerings. Ridings showcases the fact that she’s written all 12 songs herself, collaborating along the way with in-demand producer Greg Kurstin (Sia, Maggie Rogers, Adele) and others. Ridings’ admirable creative control gives the album a cohesive tone and thematic scope, but it also permits stretches of repetition and the occasional cliché. Though she explores heartbreak and longing by probing surprisingly dark corners of her psyche, the album’s steadiness of vision renders the product of that exploration somewhat monochrome.
Freya Ridings includes a mix of sedate, minimalist ballads and pop songs that build volume around Ridings’ voice and piano with copious strings, backup harmonies, drums, and handclaps. The album’s standout tracks select the best elements from both of these strands and braid them together with ease. Opener “Poison” greets the listener with a coy fake-out: Ridings begins with a delicate piano melody hinting at a somber, stripped-down track in the vein of “Lost Without You,” but after a suspended chord at the end of the first verse, the track exhales into a tantrum of thudding drums, anxious string bowing, and dramatic keyboard chords. The song hints at Ridings’ lyrical preoccupations, gender-flipping a Twilight-style vampire infatuation with lines like “Just one more drop / Then I will stop.”
In Ridings’ songs, love is torture, and crushing on someone is a form of noble suffering. Motifs of fire and blood run through her lyrics, conjuring a gothic atmosphere that draws the listener in but also makes the songs start to feel predictable. “Castles” and “Love Is Fire” create upbeat self-empowerment anthems out of this intensity, while “Blackout” and “Ultraviolet” find Ridings in her comfort zone, dwelling in romantic angst at the piano. By the time the listener arrives at the album’s final two tracks, “Elephant” and “Wishbone,” the central analogies begin to sound a bit silly: Ridings sings, “I don’t forget, like an elephant / You’re imprinted on my heart” and wishes for her beloved with “every wishbone I break / Every candle on every cake.”
Although Freya Ridings suggests room for growth, it also hints at the artist’s willingness to tread new ground, even if it feels a bit shaky at first. The striking “Holy Water” suggests an instinct for stylistic experimentation that remains latent on some of the album’s more monotonous tracks. With handclaps, tambourine shakes, and energetic backing vocals, the song references religious revival music to conjure a satanic vision of romantic obsession: “You keep me holding on / To the devil that I love in you.” In her live shows, Ridings invites her audience to participate by teaching them the backing parts, thus breaking the intensely internal frame that contains most of her songs. These occasional moments of willful discomfort—for audiences rarely excel at harmonizing with a professional singer—suggest that Ridings may be able to activate the staying power of other musicians with distinctive voices. She possesses plenty of innate talent but, equally as important, a willingness to take risks that are necessary for creative evolution.