Musical prowess runs through Lydia Luce’s blood. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter had a violin thrust in her hand by her mother (a professional conductor for the Ars Flores Symphony Orchestra) as soon as she was big enough to hold it. It’s lucky for us that she did—Luce’s brand of spellbinding folk is made all the better by her virtuosity as a classical musician. Her skilled incorporation of strings is the bread and butter of Dark River, a stunningly profound and personal album inspired by a harrowing breakup and subsequent trip into the mountains that allowed Luce to “sit quietly in sadness and let myself feel the deep loneliness I was trying to avoid,” per her album bio.
The album opens with “Occasionally,” a gorgeous track that flaunts Luce’s skill as a singer. Her voice shines through as evocative and emotional, effortlessly dipping down for the lower notes against the backdrop of stunning chamber pop. It’s undoubtedly one of the best tracks on an album that’s solid through and through.
The album’s title track is dominated by a driving drum beat with a dash of Americana. Luce details her past struggles with codependent relationships with lyrics like, “I hunger for affection / After pushing you away / I tend to give a little more when I am broken.” The song strikes a perfect balance between a straightforward declaration of Luce’s feelings and figurative language as she plays with the juxtaposition of light and dark.
Dark River is at its most sonically upbeat on tracks “Never Been Good” and “Leave Me Empty.” The two songs act as pace-breakers among the lineup of grand, orchestral moments that makes up most of the album, with an indie-rock guitar taking the spotlight, rather than the moody strings seen elsewhere in her work.
On “Something to Say” and “Maybe In Time,” Luce returns to the fresh folk that landed her a spot on multiple Spotify playlists centered around sitting in coffee shops. Both songs feature a gentle and comforting fingerpicked guitar with flourishes of other instruments that tie the sound back to the other album’s tracks. On “Something to Say,” it’s the occasional electric guitar riff. “Maybe In Time” favors a sprinkling of violin and a few notes of piano hitting like drops of water between verses.
At the tail end of the album is “All The Time,” an anthemic moment of hope amid a body of work that is so often rooted in loneliness. Instead of ruminating on past mistakes, Luce clearly states what she needs from her relationships in the present, with attention-grabbing lines like “You’re not here to ruin someone’s garden” and “Oh, I need you to step into the light / Oh, I need you to love me all the time.”
Cohesive while still being varied, the tracks on Dark River range from personally intimate to grandly cinematic, sometimes over the course of one song. On her sophomore album, Lydia Luce continues to establish her unique sound to an effect that is positively breathtaking.
Carli Scolforo is a New England journalist and intern for Paste Magazine. She loves late-night TV and reading celebrity memoirs, and never truly left her emo phase. You can follow her on Twitter @carli_sco.