Album Review: Yola – ‘Walk Through Fire’

Yola

The short version: Through compelling performances and stellar songs, Yola’s ‘Walk Through Fire’ is incredibly easy to like.

  • Favorite tracks: “Lonely The Night,” “Ride Out In The Country,” “Faraway Look,” “Rock Me Gently,” “Still Gone”
  • Least favorite track: “Walk Through Fire”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: While it’s not uncommon to hear artists adopt retro sounds for projects as of late, it’s rare that you hear a legitimate fusion between soul and country music.

Enter British singer/songwriter Yola, or, as she used to go by, Yola Carter. Before being discovered by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Yola had quite the tough road to walk ahead of her debut album. The album, titled Walk Through Fire, takes its name from a devastating house fire Yola endured, leaving her homeless for a time in London. Aside from that, Yola had also endured an abusive relationship prior to writing this album.

In that sense, it’s no surprise that Walk Through Fire is a remarkably great project that looks ahead through uplifting performances. Through compelling vocal performances and stellar songs, Walk Through Fire is incredibly easy to like, and it will likely be one of the best debut albums of the year.

There’s a cool confidence to this record that suggests Yola is looking ahead to better days rather than dwelling on past events. It’s not that those past events don’t play a role on this project, it’s just that Yola has her remedies for moving on.

But this also brings me to my main criticism of the album. For as stellar as it can be, there’s tracks that coast more on excellent vocal performances and production rather than stellar lyricism. The title track is the most obvious example, as beyond the groove feeling fairly underweight, it also delves into clichéd inspirational messaging that doesn’t add the same amount of firepower as other tracks. It also bogs down “Still Gone” a little bit, but when the groove is that great, it’s hard to complain.

What makes Walk Through Fire such a compelling listen at times is when it explores those deeper emotional complexities. “Ride Out In The Country” carries a very relatable story of finding solace in a place that means a lot to us, and in her case, the countryside. Even when the backstory is established, the focus is rarely on the pain that lingers. Yola would rather move on, capturing her fascination with the scene around her through great imagery.

“Lonely The Night,” the album’s other excellent standout, succeeds for many of the same reasons. The focus here is a reflection on the nighttime scenery around her, with Yola doing her best to take her mind off the loneliness. Of course, it helps that this song carries a monster of a hook that’s only accentuated by Yola’s explosive delivery.

On that note, as a vocalist, Yola possesses an incredible amount of range, power and emotional nuance. On vocal performances alone, this project is easy to enjoy. The aforementioned hook of “Lonely The Night” is all the proof needed, but there’s not a moment here that sounds anything less than great. “Faraway Look” has a mesmerizing chorus, and “Rock Me Gently” finds her working well in softer pop territory.

Walk Through Fire also possesses some of the smoothest, pleasing production of the year. For Yola, it’s a welcome fit. There’s a lushness to this project that equally manages to blend soul, pop and country with some actual bite to it. Yes, this project does sound “retro,” particularly pulling from ’60s era country and pop, but it doesn’t sound dated. The fiddle and steel guitar sound great matched against those lusher textures on something like “It Ain’t Easier,” and when she brings in piano and organ on “Love All Night (Work All Day),” “Deep Blue Dream,” and “Lonely The Night,” the melodic textures are just that much more pronounced, and the hooks are all the more stickier.

But when revisiting the lighter lyrical stakes of the album, it does eventually feel like the album retreads the same ground as before without that deeper insight. For as commendable as the message of “Love All Night (Work All Day)” is, it operates on common cliches that don’t have the same pronounced power to them. And even if “Love Is Light” doesn’t feel like the strongest closer, at least it ends on an upbeat note where Yola happily finds love again. At least there’s closure to this thematic arc.

But even the weaker tracks on Walk Through Fire aren’t anywhere close to bad. Instead, it’s just a matter of finding ways to make them even better, but that’s something that will come with time anyway. As it is, Walk Through Fire is a stellar debut album on nearly all fronts. In some ways, it might just be easier to say, “shut up and listen,” because Yola is an artist who should be on everyone’s radar, if not now then very soon.

(Decent to strong 8/10)

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