Sniff all you like about the public taste; the Top 40 doesn’t lie. Last year, Ed Sheeran toddled away with the Christmas No.1 with a stately ballad. Dance DJs have swapped pounding breakbeats for relaxed vibes, and Drake’s newest global smash, currently standing at a colossal 358,000,000 streams, potters along at a sleepwalking 77 bpm. Pop is slowing down. Mellow is in.
Charlotte Day Wilson’s Stone Woman, her second EP following 2014’s CDW, is the newest collection of mid-tempo jams to trouble the charts. A Toronto-based autodidact who learnt to cut her own beats by watching YouTube tutorials, Wilson’s simmering music straddles hip-hop, neo-soul, and in one unforgettable moment, contemporary jazz. The lyrics are weary and sad, and you’ll probably be hearing them drifting by on Spotify’s Sweet Soul Sunday playlist very soon.
If that all sounds faintly dismissive, then rest assured that Wilson isn’t another identikit balladeer. On ‘Stone Woman’, she layers her brooding vocals over a stuttering trip-hop motif, repeating the title over and over, as if in accusation. Nothing captures the sting of heartbreak better than pop, but this is no tired blame game. Like Frank Ocean and Kelela before her, Wilson proves that the most emotionally complex music right now is coming from the Alt-R&B movement. Her introspective songs are confessionals where she is both the victim and the enemy, yearning for the love she lost while reckoning with her own struggles with intimacy.
There are some terrific grooves, too. Take ‘Doubt’, a stand out cut that plays like Motown by twilight- rubbery basslines, a subtle gospel backing choir, and an earnest lyric about being struck dumb by an unconditional love. If Dodie grew up listening to Dusty Springfield and aped Geoff Barrow, you imagine if would sound something like this. It’s also a great showcase for Wilson’s talents as a D.I.Y producer. Her arrangements are subtle, gently daubing layers onto a minimal motif until the song flowers into a shiny crescendo. Emancipation has never sounded more danceable than on Nothing New, as Wilson sings ‘I know my ties when I’m cutting loose’ over a chattering electronica instrumental.
Listening to Wilson is a bit like receiving a guided tour of her record collection. Letting You Down is saccharine swing backed up by old-timey big band violins and a clattering drum machine, the old bones of 1953 dressed in the silk shirts of 1987. The pillowy electronic pianos suggest some Drizzy worship, but the closest relation might be La Question, that 1971 masterpiece by Françoise Hardy. Like Wilson, Hardy’s delicate voice is suffused with twilit tones of yearning and loneliness, achingly conscious of how easily love’s precious metals are tarnished. However, there was a definite sunrise at the end of Hardy’s dark night of the soul. Wilson lives in the dusk. On closer ‘Funeral’, she sighs ‘Oh, anytime I think of you, I’m empty hearted’, and the damn sincerity of it all strikes you like an avalanche. The love is over, here is the epitaph.
If there is anything holding Wilson back from a Radio 2 session, it’s her consistency. You are forever left waiting for her to kick up a gear, to go charging forward into the sort of quicksilver verse that gives Kelela’s albums their electric pop. Instead, it’s all a bit monochrome. At just 21 minutes, the unrelentingly glum lyrics and slow rhythms soon feel a bit stiff, like toffee that’s hardened in the sun. Even Sheeran led with Shape of You.
But there is still so much to admire here. Wilson’s alto is full of glowering character and her production demonstrates an astute sonic imagination. Funeral’s coda is a genuinely breath-taking moment; a muffled jazz trumpet solo that appears to be wailing in the next room, distant yet still in earshot. It’s a moving finale for an EP that feels so much leafing through the pages of a battered diary, and more than enough to make the eventual album worth crossing your fingers for.