Album Review

Johanna Samuels - Bystander

Overall, Bystander is a work of art, one that secures Samuels’ title as a songwriter’s songwriter. But it's not always user-friendly.

Johanna Samuels - Bystander Album Cover
June 19, 2023 11:37 am GMT

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Johanna Samuels - Bystander

Label: Jealous Butcher Records

Release Date: June 23, 2023

Producers: Josh Kaufman

Tracklisting:

1. Ugly On The Inside

2. Golden Gate

3. Holy Mothers

4. The Rest Of Us

5. Phil Spector Is Dead

6. Valetine's Day is Stupid

7. Little Buckets

8. Any Good

9. Song For Molly Parden (Happy Birthday Darling)

10. Tampa

11. Inside Girl

What is a bystander?

The question kicks off Johanna Samuels’ new album, its words still suspended in the opening track’s syrupy acoustics as she ponders, the victim or the inflictor?”

From the first song, ‘Ugly On The Inside’, the stage is set for the rest of the release, a project full of unasked questions needing to be answered.

Queries, like “How do you reconcile with your past?”, "How do you sift through the rubble to find yourself again” and “Where do you go from there once you have?” whisper throughout the folk-pop songwriter’s new album. Among the album’s 11 tracks, Samuels – armed with a spellbinding lilt and an unapologetic pen – searches for the answers and, in turn, for herself.

Bystander finds Samuels caught between self-reflection and self-exploration as she puts her life thus far under a microscope. Many of the tracks lay bare her journey, playing like little secrets between listener and songwriter. Every intimate line that falls on perked ears - lingering there long after the final notes ring out - feels personal, like it was meant for you and you alone.

From the album’s gripping opening track to its captivating closer, each tune is a dive into the songwriter’s inner depths. The liquor-obscured ‘Golden Gate’, with its haunting lyrics swimming in a dark pop haze, and the soul-stirring ‘Holy Mothers’, its inflections measured and matter-of-fact, provide such feelings.

With captivating character studies like ‘Tampa’ and ‘The Rest of Us’, Samuels paints vivid slices-of-life with her arresting lyrics and effervescent voice, giving the album a dose of undeniable relatability. She even touches on the spiritual with ‘Song for Molly Parden (Happy Birthday Darling)’ and ruminates on love on ‘Any Good’.

A visceral songteller, her words are enrapturing, if at times puzzling. While a powerful testament to growth and becoming, the album can be intricate, winding and is by no means a casual listen. Her come-hither vocals and all-consuming compositions demand listeners’ attention, but struggle to hold them when overly abstract narratives like ‘Phil Spector Is Dead’ and ‘Little Buckets’ come into play.

Overall, Bystander is a work of art, one that secures Samuels’ title as a songwriter’s songwriter, but is not always user-friendly. Void of catchy pop hooks, but brimming with introspection and intrigue against bewitching melodies, this is an album for those searching for their own answers.

7/10

Johanna Samuels' 2023 album, Bystander, is out June 23 via Jealous Butcher Records.

For more on Johanna Samuels, see below:

Written by Alli Patton
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