String together the song titles on Bristol-born and Nashville-based singer Yola’s new record, Stand for Myself, and you can patch together fragmented poetry as creative connective tissue: “I’m barely alive dancing away in tears in my diamond studded shoes. Be my friend?” The link between track names gives Yola’s work continuity of sentiment to contrast with her varied musical expressions. Stand for Myself straddles a wide gulf of styles, like soul, rock, Americana, gospel and doo-wop, as well as tempos, from upbeat to slow-groove. There’s seemingly no aesthetic Yola won’t embrace and no pace she can’t keep up with, or at least nothing she won’t fully commit herself to if she decides to try it.
The best word to use for characterizing Stand for Myself is “triumphant,” which is as much a credit to the album’s quality as it is a testament to its existence. Like many recording artists, Yola took her share of blows from the COVID-19 pandemic, including a Ryman performance rescheduled from last May to March of 2022; her first big-screen role, playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, previously on the books for a late-fall, early-winter ‘21 release, won’t open in theaters until June ‘22. So amidst these setbacks and others, Stand for Myself functions as a kind of tonic for Yola’s career and ongoing rise to stardom, a powerful reminder that no matter what obstacles topple into her path, she’s going places. Nothing can stop her, not poverty, not racism and not even a goddamn plague.
But this indomitability occupies no space in the album’s tone. In fact, Yola’s sheer will to endure surfaces through a sustained vulnerability, from the opener, “Barely Alive,” to the closing title track. If Yola writes a dozen songs sharing the same echoing theme of “I kick ass,” and if she strings them all together into one record, it’ll probably be a solid record. Stand for Myself doesn’t do anything of the sort, and tends more toward sounds of fatigue and heartbreak than anthemic self-congratulation. The more Yola opens up to her audience about, for instance, loneliness, whether on “Barely Alive,” “Great Divide” or “If I Had To Do It All Again,” the more power the album builds. It’s simple physics.
Consider the relationship between “Barely Alive” and “Stand for Myself.” By the time Yola arrives at the conclusion to her thesis, she’s gone through what reads to the ear as a resurrection. Not many people could start out asking, “When will we start living,” as goes the chorus on the former, and end proclaiming, “I used to be nothing like you / I used to feel nothing like you / Now I’m alive, alive / I’m alive! Oh yeah,” as goes the finale to the latter. This, of course, is the purpose of and story behind Stand for Myself: It’s Yola’s journey toward agency and self-determination, through obstacles and struggles few of us can imagine. But despite having come to that journey’s end—or if not the end, then a bracing halfway point between the origin and the destination—she sings with urgency, with immediacy, that soars from our speakers to our souls.
If Stand for Myself is about Yola coming to terms with her life and losses—“Break the Bough,” arguably the album’s greatest bop, was composed after her mother’s funeral—then it’s about nourishment for her listeners. On first introduction, the details that stick out most about Stand for Myself are elements of craft: Yola’s abiding intensity even on gentler tracks, the casual confidence of her storytelling and the tight musicianship of her backing band, from Sam Bacco’s percussion to Tim Bukovac’s guitar to Nick Movshon’s bass, marinated in a classic sparkle that dates back to the 1960s, the 1970s and beyond. The record sounds like it’s been sitting dormant on a basement shelf for half a century. (No wonder Dan Auerbach wanted to work with her.)
But Yola has her own point of view, and rather than crib from the past, she filters those influences through all the things that make her who she is, and those things make Stand for Myself into a cordial for the human spirit. The promise of a summer liberated from fears of a viral rampage hasn’t been dashed, but also hasn’t quite been kept, either, and even so, pop culture currently craves positivity and a shot of optimism. Coloring the album only in sunny shades belies the deep-rooted sadness at its core, because Yola has, like everyone on the planet, gone through a hell made just for her through the last year and change. Stand for Myself isn’t the product of a Pollyanna. It’s frank and fresh in its fashion, carrying darkness and unguarded emotions on crests of S-tier artistry.
It’s demonstrative, too, showing us more of who Yola is two years after she announced herself with her excellent debut Walk Through Fire. Best of all, though, the album actively seeks out hope under duress. That’s work we all have to do. Yola shows us how.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
Revisit Yola’s 2019 Paste Studio session below.