A Southern Gothic is an album that thrillingly pushes at the boundaries of what the blues can be.
You can think of genre as a set of rules — formal conventions that delineate a particular means of expression, like how sonnets have to have fourteen lines, or rock and roll a particular kind of beat. Or you could think of it as a kind of community: a tribe of people who recognize in one another a shared set of values and convictions, and who are interested in telling the same kinds of stories. No matter which way you want to look at it, Adia Victoria’s third and finest album, A Southern Gothic, pushes at the boundaries of what the blues can be. In doing so, she is inclusive and exclusionary in equal measure, at once claiming space for Black women while also positing the blues as a cultural and historic lineage in which some have sown more blood and tears than others.
Of course, Victoria has always managed to be a true believer without coming across as a finger-wagging purist; give a listen to the punkish energy of Beyond the Bloodhounds or the icy chill of Silences, two albums that uphold the values of the blues without being conscripted by them. A Southern Gothic features the spiritual guidance of the archivalist/revivalist T-Bone Burnett, somewhat nebulously credited as an executive producer, suggesting perhaps that this is Victoria’s most straight-ahead roots music yet, a feeling that’s initially confirmed by “Magnolia Blues,” a gently-driving tour through Southern iconography. “Mean-Hearted Woman” leans into grim austerity, and a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “You Was Born to Die” is performed with boisterous classic-rock energy, right down to a stinging guitar solo from Jason Isbell. This opening salvo sets the table for a more porous, exploratory take on the blues, one where there’s room enough for the stylized (“Troubled Mind,” as dramatic as a James Bond theme) and the contemporary (“Deep Water Blues,” set to a muggy trap beat). Not all of these songs play by the rules of the form, yet they sound like they were grown in the same soil, baked in the same hot sun.
But if A Southern Gothic is about redrawing boundaries, it’s also about staking a place inside them. Its title suggests a literary tradition with room enough for William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor; Victoria’s insistence is that there is room enough for Black women, too. Song after song litigates the complexity of life in the South, tracing a landscape peppered with “Jesus Saves” signs and rebel flags. The most stunning of these songs is “Whole World Knows,” a gutting story of secrecy and shame set inside the close-knit culture of small-town fundamentalism. There’s also “Deep Water Blues,” about the Black woman’s burden of perennially saving white folks’ asses from total political and cultural collapse; keep it handy for the next Deep South election blockbuster. Victoria ends the album singing with The National’s Matt Berninger on a song called “South for the Winter,” about how folks who were born and raised below the Mason Dixon lines feel the South’s gravitational pull no matter how far they travel. For outsiders, the song may not really explain why a place that’s so fraught can still feel like home.But some things can’t really be explained at all; they can only be believed.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 1.