Credit: Huy Nguyen
by Jonathan Keefe Music

Best Albums of 2021: Adia Victoria | A Southern Gothic

January 8, 2022

#19. Her approach to the blues has always bucked tradition, but Adia Victoria fully develops an inimitable aesthetic on A Southern Gothic, on which she embraces her capacity to make people squirm who, in her estimation, deserve to sit in some discomfort. While her targets are broad — white supremacist institutions, religious hypocrisy — she chooses specific targets when making her points. On “Magnolia Blues,” when she sings of planting herself under the South’s most iconic species of tree, she’s taking up space in an act of defiance. Later, “Whole World Knows,” a tale of a pastor’s daughter who shows up strung-out to her own sweet sixteen party, reserves Victoria’s judgment for the family whose false sense of propriety failed their own child for the sake of public-facing godliness. The album’s title is apt, then, in the sense that Victoria is fully committed to exposing the horrors of the modern South while still claiming that South as her own. 

Indeed, that love-hate tension is how Victoria embodies the blues idiom. While there are some overt nods to conventional blues structures on “Troubled Mind” and “My Oh My,” a killer duet with Stone Jack Jones, Victoria’s sonic approach to the genre is knotty and progressive in ways that will, by design, rankle would-be purists. That the timbre of her singing voice has a natural sweetness only heightens the tensions at play throughout: As a “Mean-Hearted Woman,” Victoria sounds like she might kill you with kindness, but, make no mistake, you’ll still end up dead by her hand just the same. If there’s a useful analogue to what Victoria accomplishes here, it’s peak-era PJ Harvey, another artist who uses blues conventions as a suggestion of forms into which to channel her rage: “Deep Water Blues” finds Victoria masking a threat of drowning as a lullaby, and it draws an immediate parallel to Harvey’s “Down by the Water.” Even still, Victoria’s perspective is wholly her own, foregrounding the experiences of Black women in her narrative and musical voices, and it’s Victoria’s mastery of both that makes A Southern Gothic one of the year’s finest albums.