The short version: Leslie Stevens explores the darkest throes of depression on ‘Sinner.’
- Favorite tracks: “Falling,” “The Tillman Song,” “12 Feet High,” “Depression, Descent,” “Sinner”
- Least favorite track: “Teen Bride”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: One struggle with being a music critic is knowing when to step back and objectively analyze a work, and when to let ourselves become personally immersed within said work.
Granted, the usual answer is to find some happy balance between the two, but the cases that always catch critics off guard are the ones where there’s no familiarity with the artist beforehand. Enter Leslie Stevens, a Missouri native who now finds solace in California, more specifically the acts associated with that state and sound in the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Past projects for Stevens showed her potential as a vocalist, though whether it was her 2016 solo album or her 2010 album under “Leslie Stevens and the Badgers,” the sound hadn’t quite fully materialized just yet. But for her newest album, Sinner, she recruited Jonathan Wilson (Dawes, Father John Misty) for production duties, and the result is a project that shows her love for her current home state, yet also shows her finally coming into her own as an artist.
Sinner is an album easiest to describe in metaphors – an almost literal deep dive into depression and how Stevens copes with it herself, and how she’s watched others deal with it, too. The tones are seeped in classic country, but these aren’t songs sung from a lively honky tonk with jubilant patrons; it’s empty and long been abandoned, if anything.
The most noticeable improvement going into Sinner is the instrumentation and production, which leans heavily into the same blend of atmospheric country you’d expect, given the influences, but uses it more to highlight the echoed loneliness of the project. The reverb is there, but it never overstays its welcome thanks to some continued support from some richer-sounding pedal steel, barroom piano and light brushes of acoustic guitar. Sinner is certainly a downbeat album, in that regard, though that’s the point. The only moment of real, upbeat cheerfulness comes through on “12 Feet High” with the glistening keys, and even then, it only serves to highlight how this character wants to be happy, yet has too much weighing on her conscience to move ahead. “Depression, Descent” is another track one could describe as rollicking, though it’s another instance of trying to hang on through the worst of ordeals.
If anything, the crutch of this album comes through on tracks like “Falling,” where the scene of an abandoned bar really takes hold, or “Sinner,” which leans into its murkier textures to capture that feeling of hopelessness, or, at the very least, lost sense of direction. And given that Stevens’s resume includes fronting a country rock band, “The Tillman Song” is, admittedly, a welcome moment where the album explores new sonic territory, with a jumpier percussion line and sinister momentum in the frantic-sounding electric guitar riffs. If anything, I’d love to hear Stevens explore this side of her sound further on future projects.
For as downbeat as this is, though, the tonal whiplash between brighter tones and somber lyrical content does become an issue at points. It works for the aforementioned “12 Feet High” and “Depression, Descent,” but the dreamier lounge vibe of “Teen Bride” doesn’t work for the track at all, and “Sylvie” can’t help but feel like a moment that’s too polished and undercut to really sell its message.
But if we’re looking for further highlights, we can’t ignore Stevens herself, vocally. Her squeakier tone might not be for everyone, admittedly, especially when there are noticeable cracks in her performances here and there; but she’s got a quiet grace to her inflection that finds her well-suited for this material. The best moments come through when she leans into the more atmospheric textures, like the outro of “The Tillman Song” or the pure, aching loneliness of “Falling,” but the fragile touches of her delivery come through with a ton of conviction and ache.
The real conversation surrounding Sinner, however, is its lyrics and themes, hence the need for the opening question in this review. I’ve alluded to this numerous times already, but Sinner isn’t an easy album to listen to, if only for how far it goes exploring mental health, depression, and the guilt that can come for any outside party involved in one’s own deterioration.
Sometimes those themes are explored from Stevens’s own perspective, like the brooding sense of nihilism she feels toward things of beauty on “12 Feet High,” or the title track, where she feels guilt knowing someone close to her gave in to their darkness, leaving her to question if she’s to blame in anyway for not doing more.
And that’s the main theme of Sinner – it comes full circle, going from her own descent in “12 Feet High,” to finding solace in someone who feels the same way in a lonely bar on “Falling,” to then overcoming those demons through love only to have one party regress and fall further than before to the point of suicide on “Depression, Descent.” That’s not to say the songs on Sinner don’t stand strong on their own, but there is a progression of acceptance and forgiveness of one’s own self as the album moves along. By track one, “Storybook,” Stevens admits feeling lost, artistically, but by the last track, “The Long Goodbye,” she finds at least some type of peace, wishing for the best not only for herself, but also for anyone else at their lowest point.
More than that, though, Sinner also explores how either her or her characters get to their lowest points. For Stevens, it’s a natural sense of anxiety as an artist, and for the character on “Teen Bride,” it’s teen pregnancy followed by the baby’s premature death, and whether it was by choice or accidental is a detail the album purposefully, and effectively, doesn’t explore; though I don’t think the track is as fleshed out, lyrically, as it could be, relying more on symbolism than a cohesive story. And because Stevens understands firsthand what these characters explore, she’s not afraid to step in and intervene, even when anyone else wouldn’t know what to do. She’s not about to let her lover lock himself away on “You Don’t Have To Be So Tough,” because that only leads to events in “Depression, Descent.”
In this department, too, “The Tillman Song” once again finds itself as the lone wolf of the album, providing an interesting dichotomy between real life Army Ranger Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004, and Stevens’s own career as an artist. It’s one track toward the end of the album that tries to find a redemptive arc, as Stevens questions whether or not her choice to be an artist means anything when someone would, instead, spend their life serving under a sense of duty. In a weird way, it’s a moment of inspiration to fight for what we believe in, even if that fight, internal or external, feels insignificant in the grander scheme of other things.
Again, Sinner won’t be for everyone, nor is it the album one would want to play on a hot summer day. But as someone who, admittedly, understands a lot of the sentiments shared here, Sinner spoke to me in a way that defies my critical faculties. I can acknowledge its faults, but I’d also argue this is an album that absolutely nails its execution in every department. Like similar albums in this vein, like, say, Ruston Kelly’s Dying Star, it’s not the kind of album that could (or should) be made again, but for an album that only stretches out to 40 minutes, it’s a captivating experience that shouldn’t be overlooked.