Northern Irish singer/songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson has achieved a lot at a young age. She released her 2015 debut album Before We Forgot How to Dream at age 18, which won Ireland’s Choice Music Prize and received a Mercury Prize nomination. Unsurprisingly, her 2019 follow-up Grim Town is about growing up—literally and emotionally. This growth takes shape in a place called Grim Town—a stomping ground for the second guessers, the alienated, the dreamers, the one last drinkers and the young, misty-eyed lovers. Listeners will know they’re in the right place when the surreal train announcement and album opener “All Aboard” informs passengers that they’ll have to discard any semblance of optimism and crawl on their knees to their final destination. Every young person with a beating heart talks flippantly about doom and gloom, but any comedian will tell you jokes are funny because they’re often grounded in truth.
“Get Set Go Kid” is the LP’s starting gun. It’s both a tongue-in-cheek instruction to grow up and a solemn examination of how the situations that warrant “congratulations” change drastically as we age. The song’s pretty, wintery bridge is a stark, obfuscating alleway into the album’s most precious pop jewel—”Everybody Loves You.” The emotional arc of “Everybody Loves You” is intensely riveting, even if you already know her resentment for someone is bound to morph into love, which it does. Monds-Watson’s vocals twinkle with conviction, and her performance perfectly encapsulates two warring emotional forces—one’s deep infatuation for every part of a person’s magnetic aura and the disheartening reality that you’re likely far from alone in that infatuation.
The album’s guiding light is Monds-Watson’s youthful voice—containing a pinch of plucky soul and ranging from playful exuberance to moody wistfulness. “Knock Me Off My Feet” represents her light-heated side with a distinctly teenage, communal spirit that relishes a challenge—a spirit that tends to trail off when we age and need it most. The shimmery, off-center guitars of “Maybe” coalesce with rich brass as Monds-Watson’s golden vocal melodies cut as deeply as her lyrics (“What was time / But a graveyard of lost chances…Molding sand castles with ashes / Of unwanted / Romantic advances”). The heart-rending barroom piano tune “Crying Your Eyes Out” asks the simple questions, but often the simplest are the most overwhelming (“Will I ever be enough?”).
Grim Town mourns the loss of simplicity that comes with childhood and teenage years and tries to fumble through the emotional wreckage with some sense of healthy normalcy (if such a thing exists). No matter what age, we’re all in search of a place to belong (“How can I be home and still want to go there?”), and Monds-Watson is strong and wise enough to admit she hasn’t found that place (“Life Trainee”). While emotional turmoil seems ever present, she has hope that life-affirming joy will sneak out the back door and stay out till sunrise.
While it’s not immune to occasional moments of tediousness (“Fall Asleep, Backseat,” “I Was Blue, Technicolour Too”), Grim Town packages young adulthood in painfully authentic, graceful soul-pop and spunky indie-rock. There’s romance gone sour, relentless what ifs, tales of microwave timers, party poppers and grocery store flowers and most of all, the mounting societal and emotional pressures that signify adulthood. Grim Town makes growing up seem—well, grim—but Monds-Watson skillfully captures its bitter realities as well as the stirring memories that become life fuel.