Monday 3 June 2024

Review of ‘Empathogen’ by Willow


Willow branches out further from her pop roots, trading pop punk for prog jazz.

You can be an artist without having to be making money off your art’ stated Willow in a recent interview with St Vincent. That’s easy to say when your parents are both megarich Hollywood actors. Then again, if you’re a nepo baby with actual musical talent and creativity like Willow, and you can afford to make art for art’s sake – why not do it?

Willow’s music career peaked commercially when she was just 9 years old. Her incredibly annoying but infectious 2010 debut single ‘Whip My Hair’ remains her biggest hit to date. She could have continued to enjoy a career as a pop star if she’s really wanted to go down that route. But instead, Willow has since embraced more alternative sounds like psychedelic soul and more recently Paramore-style pop punk. Now on Empathogen, it feels like she’s truly gone left-field - exploring her impressive vocal range over experimental jazzy arrangements. And it's a thrill to listen to. 

Songs like ‘Run!’ see her still continuing to adopt the energetic pop punk yell of her two last albums. But other tracks like ‘Down’ see her sporting a more delicate soulful vocal tone more reminiscent of Hiatus Kaiyote’s Nai Palm. ‘Ancient Girl’ meanwhile sees Willow moaning out the word ‘gu-u-u-url’ in haunting warble that reminds me of Wednesday’s Karly Hartzman, but taken to an extreme so that it almost sounds like a sacred chant. She does the same with the words ‘run, run, run, I’m running, I’ll run’ at the end of aforementioned song ‘run!’, delivering them in a low repeated murmur until they barely sound like words anymore.

However, perhaps the boldest and most exciting song here is the closer ‘b i g f e e l i n g s’. This track cycles through a series of jazzy piano riffs with Willow singing catchy theatrical melodies over each of them. It feels like a prog rock song in the way it constantly changes up time signature and key, and it really shows off the dynamics of Willow’s voice.

Although sonically this album is a blast, the very basic lyrics do feel as if they let it down slightly. The whole album is themed around being emotionally sensitive, but it doesn’t really delve into this topic with any depth, and most of the lyrics feel like placeholders. This becomes clear on the track ‘no words 1 and 2’ in which she scat sings over the entire track. I imagine the entire album was conceived this way and the lyrics were an afterthought. You could argue that the lyrics are deliberately basic as a representation of Willow’s inability to express her emotions through words. But if so this concept could have still been executed in a more fun way.