Published Feb 04, 2021It was quite a year. Between the death of their grandmother and mother, a bad breakup, a pregnancy, and an unprecedented reckoning with their identity as a band, the Staves (composed of sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor) spent 2018 in mourning, in celebration, and — more than anything else — in solidarity. Not much afterwards, the sisters found themselves committing to record another album, reckoning with still-open wounds and ripe insecurities while crafting their first full-length in several years. The result is Good Woman, an album that's alternately direct and cryptic, musically divergent, and — though not remarkable — a heartfelt statement.
Over a decade, the Staves have evolved from a humble folk trio — performing at open mic nights in their hometown of Watford, England — to a dynamic folk-rock force, touring with the likes of Justin Vernon (who produced their remarkable 2015 album, If I Was), Florence + the Machine, and First Aid Kit. While their most recent collaborative project, 2017's hypnotic The Way Is Read with chamber ensemble yMusic, saw the Staves stretching their boundaries into the experimental sphere, Good Woman finds the Staves depending upon pop hooks and synthetic touches to elevate anthems of sorrow and yearning. Developed through a deeply collaborative partnership with veteran producer John Congleton, Good Woman's fully fleshed-out sound does elevate many of the album's peaks, though it also compromises the deep vulnerability that such emotional subject matter deserves.
This is not to say there isn't deep feeling in Good Woman. The title track, for instance, is a lash against bullshit gender expectations; there is a power in a trio of sisters' voices uniting, overcoming both the external pressures and internalized prescriptions of what constitutes womanhood, and moving from the self-conscious "Be kind / I'm a good woman" to the more assertive: "I feel as though / I'm a good woman." "Best Friend" is a delightful, nostalgic portrait of naïve friendship, and amidst the bluntly self-deprecating "Failure," the Staves sing this tongue-in-cheek chorus: "Nobody wants to sing with me / Nothing left to bring to me anymore, and I know why / So high five." It's so casual that it's striking, an ironic twist that hit hard, a staple of the Staves' songwriting since 2012's similarly self-flagellatory "Pay Us No Mind." Most of the moments that feels hit home on Good Woman aren't confronting death or disintegrating relationships directly; rather, they're nostalgic reflections and inner conflicts.
Musically, Good Woman is at its best when it's just right: not totally pop, not using folk as a crutch, and not trying too hard to experiment. The unremarkably arranged, cliché-laden "Satisfied" is the best argument against a pure-pop Staves, and the adventurous, free-form "Trying" is engaging, but feels out of place on this record. All of these areas converge on album highlight "Paralysed," in which the Staves begin acoustic and explode into an ambience-tinged indie-rock climax, insisting: "I used to be magic, I used to be rage uncontained." It sounds like something ruptured, and sense has given way to pure feeling, with all the grief and confusion of a tumultuous year balled into a fleeting moment.
While Good Woman is not the most notable stop on the Staves' journey, it retains all of their most delectable elements — heart-hitting harmonies, lovely melodies, and moments of lyrical spark — that have come to define their work. The Staves are, thankfully, still very much the Staves, and Good Woman is a good listen. (Atlantic)