The same flower that decorated the flags of the Confederate army in the American Civil War grew freely in the South Carolina neighbourhood where Adia Victoria lived as a child. Raised in a devoted Seventh Day Adventist family under the shade of a magnolia tree, it equally began to symbolise her grounding; she would go outside and cover her hands in the dirt beneath the magnolia tree to overcome her creative blocks and anxieties, and would immediately feel re-centred. The Southern gothic in music and literature has traditionally excluded women of colour from its canon, and her third album seeks to become a corrective: an antidote to an alienating world within her home, the “Christ-haunted” South and a narrative that hasn’t welcomed her in despite being wholly her own. “I’m gonna let that dirt do its work,” she sings on the opening track, “I’m gonna plant myself under a magnolia.”
In exploring the South and its heritage so intimately, though, A Southern Gothic regularly falls into imitation. Clean sweeps of easy melody move between hushed acoustic guitar ballads and swamp rock that trades pedal steel for a sound resembling Seasick Steve’s hubcap. A song that should be the album’s centrepiece – featuring Jason Isbell, Kyshona Armstrong and Margo Price – becomes so bewitched by its own influence that all nuance gets lost; when mashed potato uses the finest ingredients, it’s still mashed potato. Unlike the record’s latter stages, T-Bone Burnett’s production sounds clean and glossy, more like The Black Keys than the desired earthy, authentic Nashville sound, and Victoria’s lyrics sink into very-guessable rhyming couplets.
But there are highlights that compensate, and it’s always because of Victoria’s voice, lithely fluttering and toned like a jazz singer. The relatively possessed ‘Troubled Mind’ is carried by a disarmingly sweet delivery – a hypothetical eruption forming beneath calm waters. The gently crooned ‘Deep Water Blues’, too, is a genuinely brilliant moment: perfectly sinister, traversing Southern musical landmarks with a delicately poised threat. An unusually tender moment ends the record with The National’s Matt Berninger – whose own complicated relationship with Ohio elevates ‘South For The Winter’ above his recent collaborative work, fortifying both Victoria’s reservations and resolutions that the South is still home.
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