Since her first release, Songs in the Night (with her band the Midnight Shivers), Samantha Crain has been labelled an old soul, her folk balladry a throwback to the best of Americana. She has been quite prolific since her 2009 debut, releasing three more albums that honed her pointed, often somber folk. Crain’s fifth album You Had Me at Goodbye breaks this pattern, with varied results. Musically, the singer-songwriter embraces her love of pop music, blending those sounds with holdovers from her inherent folk sensibilities. The tonal consistency of the album suffers, but Crain’s lyric astuteness lends itself to some of these peppier tracks very well.

Over the past two years since Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, Crain has progressively changed her image and her aesthetic. Her once dark hair is now dyed orange, a shock of color that introduces the notion of a less serious Crain, unburdened by the pressure of carrying the mantle of modern American roots folk. The cover art for Goodbye distills quirky whimsy into cut-and-paste graphics and the intersection of all the messy things in life. If that’s not enough to announce Crain’s musical departure, opener “Antiseptic Greeting” is almost a shock to the system, veering more towards pop-inflected freak folk with its playful keys. Crain’s lyrics—ever insightful—are given a flippant quality with the singer’s fast-paced delivery.

Goodbye leans more toward this upbeat, poppy sound throughout its 10 tracks. “Oh Dear Louis” immediately follows “Antiseptic Greeting” and is propelled by an energetic drum kit, Crain’s cooing accompanied by lighthearted strings. The irony is that Crain’s lyrics are anything but carefree. Rather, she sings about being a well-meaning but lackluster friend: “Sober for three weeks/ Then you went inside/ It was too long a time/ Oh dear Louis, I was in the yard/ Oh dear Louis, I wasn’t too far to hear you cry.” The conventional beat on “Smile When” is wholly uncharacteristic for Crain, but the distorted synth tones that boom and fuzz—interrupting refrains throughout—make it one of the most out-there tracks on the album.

Crain herself has characterized Goodbye as incorporating some of her experimental tendencies with the pop influences. Her choices on “Smile When” are certainly far flung for her, but “Windmill Crusader” takes that arrangement mode one step further. The blippy, blitzing synth lines on that track are surprisingly less intrusive than those on “Smile When.” In fact, they blend much better with the funky bass line and Crain’s purposefully choppy delivery on the chorus.

While Crain unleashes a buoyant nature that heretofore she had kept under wraps, this album does have its more somber moments. “Loneliest Handsome Man” opens with an ominous din of strings that abruptly ends, leading into a mournful piano ballad. Woodwinds and solemn strings swell with Crain’s pained vocals. “When the Roses Bloom Again” is also a piano ballad—and one that counters those smooth keys with trembling organ notes. Halfway through the track, however, Crain switches modes entirely with an atonal pseudo-woodwind synth breakdown, and childish notes play loudly over the rest of her bittersweet lyrics.

After four albums of rootsy folk, Crain is making a brave choice to switch things up. Her more indie-pop-leaning tracks simply show a brighter side to her quotidian stories, musically not that far removed from Songs in the Night. But when she does experiment with arrangements and distortions, it either draws attention away from her storytelling or doesn’t complement her overall style. What’s telling more than anything else is which tracks are the standouts. “Red Sky, Blue Mountain” is a sparse acoustic track in Crain’s native Choctaw language about the abuses of the modern world on the land; stylistically, it would fit perfectly on Under Branch & Thorn & Tree or Kid Face, and politically, it distills a powerful message into a carefully measured song. It’s “Betty’s Eulogy,” however, that gets the benefit of Goodbye‘s rich production and Crain’s storytelling. Her mournful vocals are backed by key accents, swelling strings and a pitch-perfect, single electric guitar.

While the tone of You Had Me at Goodbye is a little off, one thing that remains consistent across all five albums is Crain’s ability to write soul-bearing songs and epic observational tales while beautifully speaking to injustices. If pop and more experimental sounds are on the table for future efforts, Goodbye will serve as a good learning experience.

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