Country music has a dark history of songs about killing your lover. Men want to kill their wives for cheating. Women want to kill their husbands for cheating. Usually, the other man or woman winds up dead too. Which is to say, artists have had a lot of fun playing with the murder ballad formula over the years. You’ve got your girl-power team-ups (see The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs”). You’ve got your twisty-turny murder mysteries (see Reba McEntire’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”). And then there’s “Jolene” — definitively not a murder ballad, but notable for how it sees the good in your man’s other woman and dispenses with the crime scene that would have been had it been written by anyone other than Dolly Parton.
“Kill Her Freak Out,” the opening track to Nashville-based Samia’s sophomore album Honey, isn’t necessarily a country song, but it’s clear that Samia has absorbed one of the country music capital’s great traditions. Her ex has a new girl, and Samia wants her dead. Landing somewhere between a wedding song and a funeral dirge, the track features just a church organ, a vocal, and an occasional guitar strum — leaving the emotional weight of the lyrics and melody to do the heavy lifting. What makes the song marvelous is Samia’s wish for the thing that scares her most to come true: “I hope you marry the girl from your hometown / And I’ll fucking kill her.” It’s a track more about praying for release than it is one of pure jealousy. Offering up a cut about how feelings can drive you crazy is an apt opener to Honey, an album largely about the contradictions between fear and love.
“Charm You” is another standout track. Featuring a bed of folksy guitars and double-tracked vocals, the song warns of the trap of falling in love with the idea of someone: “I just saw my whole life flash before your eyes… / I could fetishize you for the whole damn day.” After grappling with the distinction between illusion and reality for four verses, Samia rebuffs both romance and a chorus, choosing herself on the outro: “Half life of my mystifying isn’t long enough for trying / I don’t wanna charm anyone this time.” The following track, “Pink Balloon,” is a companion to its predecessor. While “Charm You” chooses the real over the fake, things get a little too real on this next song — where closeness and vulnerability lead to doubts about a relationship. “How are you supposed to wanna love me anymore?” Cutting through tender keys, the lyrics are at times disturbingly specific (“Your mom keeps threatening suicide on holidays”) and at others just vague enough for the listener to fill in the blanks (“I broke a promise that I didn’t even know I made”). Samia’s strange particularity shows up again two tracks later in “Sea Lions,” which offers the opening line, “Screaming, ‘Porn kills love’ / Outside your window with the Adventists.” A song about suppressing your thoughts in order to keep the peace, it starts off a sparse piano ballad before launching into a groovy, swirly instrumental jam (though one does wish this half had a proper verse).
We get a welcome pick-me-up with “Mad At Me,” a Rostam Batmanglij-cowritten, papa mbye-featuring sunny pop song anchored by driving drums. As Samia describes it, the track is about “cosplaying confidence”: an exercise in trying on what it might feel like not to care what others think about you — “Hurts to be somewhere ’cause you gotta stay there / After you say what’s on your mind.” Once you let others know the truth, you can’t take it back; you can’t have it both ways. Like on “Pink Balloon,” vulnerability again rears its ugly head. And then there’s “Breathing Song,” which Samia has described as “the least enjoyable song of all time.” It’s a song about surviving and living with trauma, and she has a point. The simple screaming chorus of “No no no” is undeniably chilling, and it quickly leads directly into the album’s title track: an effort that sounds hopeful on its surface but suggests otherwise. “I’m not scared of anything,” Samia sings, but it’s unconvincing. There’s a base of bitterness that lurks beneath the track’s gooey sweet vocals.
But where most of the album may feel dark and conflicted, “To Me It Was” and “Amelia” deliver two of its most hopeful moments. The former is another folksy guitar tune about looking back on hard times with fondness, and it also features the album’s funniest line: “A couple bald men fighting over a brush.” The latter is a bright, uptempo number with lyrics that genuinely reflect the track’s sound: “Percolating, breathing, dancing, dying.” Named for half of Sylvan Esso, “Amelia” is the first song on Honey that feels truly free, one about the joy of making music with your friends: “Oh my god there’s nothing quite like doing / What you came to do.”
All in all, then, Honey is a worthy follow-up to 2020’s The Baby. It’s often sparse, sad, and slow, which can make it harder to get through than her debut — but its sticky vocal melodies sweeten the mostly minimalist production. On the album’s final track, the stream-of-consciousness “Dream Song,” Samia reflects “Today is all of it,” planting herself firmly in the present just before launching into her most detached and disembodied self: “There are six minutes of brain activity after the body’s dead.” Honey delivers all of these contradictions at once: it’s opaque and obscure, yet also trading in memorable specificity. It’s autobiographical and confessional, while also lending itself to endless, rewarding interpretation.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.