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Album Review | Robyn Sherwell’s “Unfold”

Robyn Sherwell’s critically acclaimed full-length debut album signalled the arrival of a new emotive female singer-songwriter, and she was quickly championed by the likes of BBC Introducing and BBC Radio 6 for her fresh standout voice in the saturated realm of heartfelt confessional electro-pop. Sherwell now builds on these promising foundations with her incredible new sophomore album, Unfold.

Since being hailed as “a significant new voice” by The Guardian after the release of her self-titled debut, Sherwell has undergone some notable changes in her personal life that have certainly influenced her sound and song-writing. After experiencing the huge transition of becoming a mother, following the loss of a previous pregnancy, with deep emotional vulnerability also came new personal and creative resilience that meant that she felt inspired to make music once again.

The first thing that becomes apparent from listening to Robyn Sherwell’s new project is her cherished affection for beautiful and pure storytelling. In every song, you can feel her artistic and personal freedom, framed by a wave of warmth and enlightenment that you’d not always expect from an artist who tends to revel in raw, honest lyricism.

There’s no better example of this than the second single off the album, ‘A Kiss’. The clarity of the storytelling is near flawless. There is a charming simplicity to the hook that rather than drilling home a melody, perfectly anchors the song, which lyrically is full of fleeting thoughts of a person sharing a risky kiss. The instrumentation keeps a patterned pace to the song with chiming keys that act as a ticking clock while the lyrics are beautifully fragmented and explore: ‘the risk of doing something that can’t be undone, something that could change everything, and the floating exhilaration, fear, and anticipation of that moment,” explains Robyn.

The singer-songwriter genre is a corner of the musical spectrum that has such deeply traditional foundations that those designated with that label can sometimes fall victim to these expectations. Sherwell appears to have no issue with this on Unfold. The gorgeous guitar driven ‘Problems’ is a lighthouse for this revitalising acoustic sound, offering an alternative artistic approach to a seasoned genre. There’s something quietly perfect about the way the rhythmic strumming guitar in the hook is complemented by melodically echoing keys, giving the instrumentation a refreshing dynamism.

Lyrically, the song calls time on a relationship that has become too oppressive, but successfully evades the truism of the singer-songwriter balladry by exuding an overwhelming sense of power, resilience, and the breaking of a new personal dawn: “The tighter you hold, the brighter the goal, the fire is out, and you’ll watch me unfold. I’m on my way, land-bound again, on my own.”

This track also effectively showcases, alongside others like the opener ‘To Give Up’ and ‘Sand In My Toes’, the prominence and pull that Robyn’s vocals have in the final mix. This emphasis placed on voice enables Sherwell to seamlessly move between singer-songwriter folk balladry and electro-pop, with the equilibrium being emotive heartfelt expression. Recorded within her close-knit circle, some songs showcase first-take vocals, not only lending an additional sensitive quality to the project, but proving that Robyn’s confidence in herself and her creativity are the unquestioned driving forces behind Unfold.

For this new project, Shewell returned to her home studio in London: “To be writing at home and self-producing is so empowering. It feels like a return to when I was first exploring music and my artistry.” However, she was also aware that to create something true, she needed some help from a friend and someone who knew her well. That someone was Jonas Jalhay – whose credits include artists such as DJ Khaled, Rag’n’Bone Man and James Blake.

The most heartbreaking but beautiful cut on the project is ‘Two Weeks’, originally released as part of Sherwell’s 2020 Where Do We Go From Here EP. It tells the story of her own personal experience with a loss that affects one in four pregnant women, and is unquestionably the most heartrending yet musically magnificent track on the record.

Its success lies in the perceptive sophistication of the songwriting and composition – delicate storytelling protected and propelled by consciously informed production. Sherwell’s ability to make something so raw and moving, and turn these painful experiences into something so mindful and true, is genuinely incredible. With a drum-loop pulse created from a real sonogram heartbeat and carefully stacked vocals, the production is soft and is exactly what the subject matter requires.

‘Lifting Me Up’ is possibly the most derivative track on the album, due to its simpler sound and subject matter. On a rock-pop album, this would be a great addition – a crowd pleaser – but Unfold as a project is more enlightened and mature than maybe this one song reflects. With a repetitive pop-rock drum beat, Haim-like melody and a bridge that could’ve been more, it is far from a bad track, but it just feels out of place on this project.

Robyn Sherwell’s Unfold is a masterclass with a genre bending blend that leaves no room for cliche. It’s clear that Sherwell’s strength lies in her lyricism, though it’s her relationship and deep understanding with producer Jonas Jalhay that allows it to shine through; her vocals and words are centre stage in this project, as they should be. There are some beautiful ballads perfectly intertwined with catchy electro-pop, all carefully pulled together to create an interesting, captivating and exciting record.

There are a few moments on the project where she chooses a catchy hook over a more intrinsic artistic approach, but this is still done with maturity and sophistication which certainly makes her stand-out from this saturated genre. If you’re into honest storytelling with a hook that catches you unaware while singing in the shower, then Robyn Sherwell’s new album Unfold will certainly be worth your while.

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Album Review | Robyn Sherwell’s “Unfold”
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