With this critical breakthrough in mind, the bar was set almost unfairly high for her recent follow-up, American Siren. No one could blame Robinson If the writing was a little bit less thought-provoking, or the production less nuanced, or the performances not as powerful. In fact, heading into this album, I anticipated regression, by virtue of her previous record being simply too good to top. What was stunning, then, was that American Siren did not settle for even recreating the magic of its predecessor, but rather built on its strengths to make for an even more compelling, creative, and interesting project.
Robinson's artistic foundation remains steady. As a performer, she remains vulnerable and in outstanding technical form. The melodies are engaging and memorable, and the hooks are well-constructed. Everything that made Travelling Mercies special is in tact on American Siren. It would be easy enough to stop there, claim your spot on year-end lists, and call it a day.
She didn't, of course.
The thematic arc of the project is built around religious institutions, and how religious expectations led to shame, resentment, and guilt. No where is this theme so evident -- or as well done -- as on "Let 'Em Burn", a stunning effort about breaking free from the restrictions placed upon her. Robinson's restrained performance adds another layer to the track, feeling wholly earnest without going overboard. "Lost Woman's Prayer" and "Every Day in Faith" tackle these themes with a similar angst and complexity, building characters and storylines while still feeling interconnected with Robinson's own experiences.
She veers off into other deeply human stories of love and loss. "Lightning In a Bottle" -- perhaps the album;'s best moment -- is a gorgeous account of young love, flowing with gratitude and recognition. It's deeply detailed in its construction and feels both whimsical and raw. "Hometown Hero", a powerful ode to a solider's struggles with PTSD and suicide, showcases Robinson's ability to construct not just narratives, but characters that feel real, relatable, and engaging.
And therein lies the genius of ESR and American Siren. It is not only a masterclass in storytelling, but showcases a vulnerability and an authenticity lacking across so much of the country music sphere. Few can engage in one of these two realms in any meaningful capacity -- to blend the personal with the fictional so eloquently speaks to her strengths as a wordsmith.
Sonically, Robinson transcends beyond the acoustic-folk base of her past work, putting in a stunning performance on the piano-driven "Let 'Em Burn" and a charming energy on the bluegrass-tinged "Old North State". The textures feel richer, blending the light acoustic sound she's familiar alongside thicker productions and bigger melodies. Indeed, this growth is the theme of the whole project. An incredible foundation amplified by meaningful risk-taking.
If there's a weak point on the album, it's "Cheap Seats", a decently endearing track about coming up as a performer that could work if not for the jarring melodic shifts in the chorus. Even then, as far as worst tracks go -- it's not that bad!
American Siren is a remarkable album, showing both a recognition of strengths and a distinct sense of artistic growth. With it, Emily Scott Robinson affirms herself as one of the genre's premier songwriters and an immense musical talent in all facets. What's amazing is that it feels like she's just getting started.
Top Tracks: "Let 'Em Burn", "Hometown Hero", "Lightning In a Bottle"