Album Review: The Secret Sisters – ‘Saturn Return’

Saturn Return may have been born out of loss and subsequent confusion, but the Secret Sisters manage to overcome that darkness in favor of a fresh new step forward.

Secret sisters

We’ve been down this road before.

Well, “we” meaning us as observers and listeners, rather than active participants in the lives of both Laura and Lydia Rogers, known collectively as the Secret Sisters. For them, art shaped by conflict isn’t an unfamiliar tale. Whereas 2017’s You Don’t Own Me Anymore was born out of impending bankruptcy and the loss of a record deal, the conflicts surrounding their fourth studio album, Saturn Return, were of a more internal variety. After losing both of their grandmothers, the sisters became mothers, unsure of how to proceed without the matriarchal inspiration. Sure, there’s beauty from that darkness, but it doesn’t make sorting through it any easier.

So, with all of that in mind, Saturn Return is a transitional project for the duo, albeit a transition that feels like a natural extension of their best core elements. Together, their harmonies have always been their biggest selling point; with Lydia’s higher, softer tone complimenting Laura’s lower, more rough-edged timbre for a sound that reflects unity and a distinctive identity for them as a duo.

Honestly, however, for as much as Saturn Return was noted as a shift away from that in favor of more individual performances, it doesn’t feel like much has changed. And I don’t mean that as a slight; Lydia’s melodic interplay with the piano on “Late Bloomer” is gorgeous, highlighting her struggle of not knowing whether she’d ever get to be a mother; and Laura’s noticeable lead on “Water Witch” compliments its seedier atmosphere excellently. But those individual (or, rather, lead) moments don’t happen as much as you might think, and from a pure thematic standpoint, that honestly might be for the better. Considering they’re not forming the song structures around having them both play distinctive roles within a song, the uniform singing makes for overall stronger performances.

And that’s more apparent when delving into the content, which is largely their aforementioned story, but also a shift away from their Southern Gothic-tinged material in favor of something more optimistic. It’s still there, of course; “Cabin” is a brutal track where the scars left on a woman from her abuser result in external brokenness and internal rage. But the larger focus is appreciating those breakthroughs whenever possible, even if there’s still a long way to go. “Late Bloomer” and “Healer In The Sky” are the sweeter moments of levity this album needs, though it’s the string of tracks beginning with “Tin Can Angel” and ending with “Hold You Dear” that feels a little more run-of-the-mill and less adventurous than previous tracks. “Tin Can Angel” and “Nowhere, Baby” both scan as too broadly sketched to hit as hard as other tracks here opting for similar sentiments. But they, along with “Hold You Dear,” are the sweeter moments of optimism this album needs, even if the dramatic stakes take precedence over stronger writing.

The easy highlight, then, is “Late Bloomer,” where the focus is appreciating that breakthrough of getting to be a mother and, therefore, feels more personal to the duo, especially when the subtext carries the self-awareness to understand how meaningful that breakthrough is. After all, the woman abused in “Cabin” is forever changed, and when the sisters stop to reflect on a childhood friend in “Fair” – bluntly pointing out how they were surrounded by love while all this girl had was an alcoholic, abusive father and a scared mother who turned to substance abuse as a coping mechanism – it makes that perspective hit much harder. Of course, that’s also why I wish the second half – minus “Healer In The Sky” – carried through with the same emotional punch.

Another easy highlight, though, comes through in the production, once again handled by the duo with Brandi Carlile and Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Of course, Carlile’s lead is evident throughout, and like with You Don’t Own Me Anymore, she’s a great fit for the duo. It’s a lo-fi aesthetic, for sure (which is also an easy, but fair, criticism), but one where the sounds are much cleaner and filled with rich timbre compared to other projects operating in this vein. The mono mixing does mean some vocal blends are a little sharper than they should be, like on “Fair,” but for the most part the mix has a rich spaciousness where every tone stands out: the jangled, rollicking, yet still sinister-sounding drive of the guitars on “Silver” that settles into an eerier balance on “Water Witch”; the crescendo on the hook of “Cabin” to add that natural, angry intensity; the fantastic basslines all around for added drive and groove; or even “Hand Over My Heart,” where the synthetic elements blend in excellently with the rollicking drum interplay and light acoustics. It’s the furthest the two have strayed from their core sound, but it’s a slice of dream pop that’s lush and elegant.

All of this is to say, too, that the melodic foundation means these mixes blend cohesively while still maintaining a unique presence, and considering the sisters are there to carry it all, moments like “Hand Over My Heart” and “Late Bloomer” sound just that much more beautiful because of it. Overall, though, Saturn Return is a sparse listen, but one marked more by optimism than previously darker efforts. And while it’s a slight shift for the duo in some regards, it’s an overall exercise in sharpening their best elements, which – even if it’s “just music” – is a cause worth celebrating, especially when their own “saturn return” has provided the strength to move ahead and provide inspiration for the next generation.

(Strong 8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Cabin,” “Fair,” “Late Bloomer,” “Water Witch,” “Hand Over My Heart”
  • Least favorite track: “Tin Can Angel”

Buy or stream the album.

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