Rosie Lowe’s debut album has been a long time coming. Having released her first EP back in 2013, the 25-year-old has been pacing in the shadows ever since, releasing a couple more singles at an agonisingly slow pace. But it’s all been leading up to this - this month’s release of Control, a debut album of synth soul and heartbreak R&B, offset against a remarkable multi-narrative detailing broken relationships, self-perception, and 21st-century concepts of womanhood. If you’ve been paying Lowe some attention prior to this album, some of the songs on here will look familiar - Right Thing, Woman, and Who’s That Girl? have all been released as singles over the last year or two.
Lowe is a musician born and bred in Exeter (she used to work behind the bar at Timepiece), raised as the sixth child of an artist and a jazz musician. Living in a wooden house built by her father, she grew up listening to the female powerhouses of jazz and soul (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell) - an influence that’s clearly made enough of an impression to imprint on her own sound. So Human, for example, has a distinct jazzy ardor, and the end of an otherwise synth-heavy Nicole slips away into a twenty-second, barely-there (but still delightful) piano riff. Previous single and EP releases may have established Lowe as an electronic artist, but Control sees her dabbling into different genres with impressive creative flair.
Still, it’s clear that Control is otherwise an album of downbeat synth-soul. Co-produced by The Invisible’s Dave Okumu, each track matches electronic beats with delicately layered vocals. Think of a female James Blake; her voice drips the same soulful feeling, balanced against similarly sparse musical arrangements - and both artists seek to blur the line between jazz, electronic and soul (and they’re both a big fans of an occasional piano riff). The eleven tracks on Lowe’s album glimmer with electronic R&B, and the echoing vocals are always so fraught with emotion. Lowe feels everything she sings.
Take the piano-driven Woman, for example - a fantastically melancholy exploration of modern-day femininity. “You’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman,” she sings; “…I find myself obsessing perfections that only I see / and I know it’s such a waste but the pressure is getting to me”. Bold and sumptuous, she’s making a stance here against all who assume the fight for gender equality is a done deal - it’s still here, she reminds us, alive and beating in the appearance and body image pressures thrust upon 21st-century women.
So many of Lowe’s lyrics, though, are electrically-charged – fierce enough to bring new edge to her tracks, but not enough for it to feel like she’s lecturing you. Each song on Control has a clear narrative, often focussing on the destructive nature of broken relationships: Who’s That Girl? conveys the troubles inflicted by false friends; in Nicole, Lowe begs a friend to cut ties with a toxic boyfriend (“Why don’t you try it on your own? / Always had a man in tow who don’t deserve your love”); Run Run Run laughs at the finger-pointing blame-game played by those in failed relationship. Lowe has a real knack for matching the mood of her songs with a similar tempo, too. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Nicole, for example - the beat here is incredibly slow and gentle, with haunting, high-pitched vocals looping in the background. It’s mournful and reflective in a way that’s beautifully sad.
Right Thing (easily one of the best songs on the album) is another good example. It’s about the return of feelings for a former flame; the song peels open with the slightly muffled sounds of a piano - just a few notes, unaccompanied, over and over for the first twenty seconds. Lowe’s vocals slip over the top - “I’ve still got the notes we left on pillows… what’s been and gone, what’s gone is history…” - and then a thundering, irregular drumbeat. The song gets bigger; the vocals start to become layered and distorted as they slip into the chorus - “Thought I made the right choice, then you came / Am I to blame? Did I lose this game?” The drumbeat becomes more forceful, the vocals get louder and more densely layered - all culminating in a crashing loop of the chorus, over and over. It’s a powerful way of mirroring the way feelings can develop or return – in the background at first, before flourishing all at once in full ferocity. It’s all pretty clever, really, and makes an incredibly arresting listen.
Control was a long-awaited debut, but Lowe has proved herself as one of the most promising singer-songwriters to emerge recently. She’s only 25, and this is still just the beginning - but this should be the start of big things. Keep an eye on her.