Oftentimes big life events come in multiples, crowding you with too many competing emotions to make head or tail of. That was the case for the sisters who make up English folk trio The Staves: Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor. While still processing the death of their mother, Emily welcomed her first child, and each sister underwent shifting relationships. The Staveley-Taylors found themselves pondering the many cycles of life they seemed to be grappling with all at once, yet they chose to focus on the good in all this unrest. Or, in their words: “We think of love. Big, big love. Our Mum. Our Dad. Our friends. And of loss. Death and birth. Womanhood, motherhood. Sisterhood. And coming home.”
That’s a lot to cover in one record, but there’s no evidence of emotional overcrowding on their new project Good Woman. Rather, an assured mood stretches out across these 12 songs, which celebrate or contemplate every chapter of womanhood The Staves have faced or are facing. Emily, Jessica and Camilla utilize their already-fortified arsenal of heavenly harmonies and folk instrumentals to craft this enlightened collection of songs, embellishing them with a newfound production flair along the way.
The natural progression of this band would’ve almost certainly led them to the bold new energy that courses through Good Woman eventually, but the process was probably sped up with a little help from ace indie producer John Congleton, who has worked with the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, St. Vincent and, notably, Sharon Van Etten on her 2019 left-turn, the daring Remind Me Tomorrow. Good Woman is likewise The Staves’ biggest sonic push yet. The jittery “Best Friend,” which bursts with electronic flavor, casts the sisters’ glorious three-part harmonies in a new light, while its successor “Careful, Kid” bristles with a foreboding industrial beat.
Those familiar harmonies get another chance to shine on the lovely “Nothing’s Gonna Happen,” which sounds most like The Staves’ previous output, including their very folksy 2015 LP If I Was. “Paralysed,” a song about the sensation of feeling stuck in a relationship or otherwise, also delightfully follows the stripped-back formula. Their new confidence is exciting to witness, but the cozy campfire melodies like those on “Nothing’s Gonna Happen” will always be The Staves’ bread and butter.
But they spend the majority of Good Woman establishing new staples. The jubilant title track and album opener proves to be an apt thesis for the record, as the simple statement “I’m a good woman,” which is repeated throughout the song, has both a profound meaning and no meaning at all. There are no statutes defining feminine goodness. Being a “good” sister, friend, mother, daughter, aunt, partner or woman looks a million different ways, but The Staves’ confident declaration acts like an enforcement of every kind of goodness. It’s like they’re trying to convince themselves as much as their listeners that whatever version of good you’re wearing, it’s OK—immaculate, even.
The song “Failure,” too, deals with perceptions of success and goodness, and the pressure to put on a happy face for those around us. Though it’s a bit cheeky (especially when all three sisters sing the verse “I’m sorry if all of us really killed your vibe” in dry unison), even as they depict what it feels like to wade through grief and, in turn, feel like a burden for sitting in one’s own feelings of sadness.
“Devotion” climbs a little higher, featuring a sturdy indie-pop beat, finger snaps and a spot of slide guitar, as the sisters describe that moment when you realize you’re in a relationship for the long haul—perhaps not in a healthy way. “Satisfied” has a tremendous sway to it as the Staveley-Taylors turn the camera back onto the listener, asking that they consider for a moment their own interpretations of the emotions at hand on this record: goodness, failure, satisfaction, grief, devotion and strength.
Any artist who gets a wild hair to chase after a new sound should surely take that opportunity to see where it leads, and it sounds like The Staves combed through a whole head of wild locks to reach their new stylistic heights. While their quiet folk songs are not a thing of the past, Good Woman benefits from the poppier textures and shiny new grooves implemented with help from Congleton. Rather than shy away from the changes life hurled at them, Emily, Jessica and Camilla embraced the shifts in their own time. As they sing defiantly on the album’s final track, “I’ll change when I want to.” And I’m happily beholden to whatever direction they take next.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.