Willie Reviews Esther Rose’s “You Made It This Far”

Willie Reviews Esther Rose’s “You Made It This Far”


Singer-songwriter Esther Rose’s You Made It This Far reassembles traditional country and folk into her own style to arrive at one of the warmest, most profound albums of 2019. Here’s RPM’s review:

Esther Rose introduced her traditional country style on her first album, This Time Last Night, and in addition to all the old-time songwriting she did, the recording style was close and grainy. You could play it for someone and convince them it came right out of the 50s or 60s. Two years later, much is the same about her music, but her new album, You Made It This Far, is open wide in every sense. The soundstage is expansive and her vocals are crystal clear. The love for life she brings to songwriting meets contemporary settings. If you watch any of the music videos created for the album by the wonderful GemsOnVHS, you’ll get a crystal-clear portrait of time and place. Bright city lights in New Orleans and intimate personal settings tell us about the players and their contemporary style. Rose’s clearheaded, self-possessed attitude taps into the good-time feeling of the music as well as the new places it can go, both lyrically and tonally.

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This old-time feeling gives Rose license to draw happy comparisons and go big with them. “Sex and Magic” lopes along in an antique way, binding together a seemingly low-stakes (“it’s only sex and magic”) comparison between a human relationship and the unseen machinations of magic. Just introducing a straightforward comparison like that as the bold chorus of a song is something you would get in the way folks used to write songs. But she works the similarity down to a fine point, singing “You know you took the best from me / So why not take the rest of me” and borrowing the language of sleazy deception to describe an unequal love. People are messy, and if it’s not already evident in the loose rhythm of her string band, it’s evident in her words. Magic is the tricks played by others, but also the tricks she plays herself. In the chorus, she sings “I cast my spell / I hope it sticks.” It isn’t just someone else telling little lies; she practices magic, too.

The record is unrelentingly compassionate. Rose identifies this herself as radical acceptance, and indeed, her stories get treatments from multiple perspectives. Just like in “Sex and Magic,” “Handyman” has two sides in the chorus. There’s “I hope you change your mind” and “I hope you change my mind.” She doesn’t only want to give equal time, she wants to understand situations in their totality. By committing to this, she is able to nimbly reach emotional peaks within the context of an upbeat tune. The standout song on the album, for me, is “Only Loving You.” It’s somehow the most deeply felt love song I’ve heard in a long time yet it doesn’t overwhelm itself with any high drama. The power of it rests in a core of emotional vulnerability surrounded by an easygoing sound. I thought it was a solid song when I first heard it, but it snuck up on me and now it makes my chest feel tight every time I hear it. It reaches a carefully controlled type of abandon. And when you have a full band that works as well as Rose’s, things will always land right-side up. They play like the song has always been around, and she sings like the song came to her fully formed.

The artist on a bench, photo by Sean Madden

But we don’t always get this invincible spirit. When the album isn’t completely traditional, it goes to some pretty astounding places. The incredible lyrical poetry of “Three” enables it to slip in and out of time and space. The song goes back in time to assess childhood memories, then returns to the present. When the foggy past meets the present with the refrain “I never knew how much I love you / Now I do,” everything makes sense. Everything! In the song, and out of it, too. When you hear that lap steel singing, you know you’ll be transported there and back again.

We can’t help but associate traditional music with… well, tradition. But you’d be hard-pressed to find music that sounds as confidently of-its-time as Esther Rose’s. She understands herself acutely enough to write songs that we are bound to associate not only with her but with her time and place.

Score: Songs you wish you could write and feelings you can finally put a song to.