We Love This So Much: Yola's 'Stand For Myself' is the album of the summer
They say the good things in life make the bad ones worth living through. I’ve always thought that’s a load of you-know-what.
But if anyone could make me believe it, Yola might be the one.
The British-born singer-songwriter returned this year with her sophomore LP, “Stand For Myself,” an album that I would sum up in two words as “compulsively listenable.” Remember how “30 Rock” was packed with rapid-fire jokes? This album is like that, but with hooks and soulful vocal licks.
I’d go so far as to say “Stand For Myself,” a platter of genre and timeline-swirling soul pop, is the album of the summer. (Maybe year — we’ll see how the spins shake out.) But like a lot of good heartbreak albums, this one sneaks up on you with a catchy little turn of phrase here and a rapturous melody there — Adele’s the reigning Billboard champ of it, Robyn’s the Swedish grandmaster and Taylor Swift is, of course, a genius with iterating breakups into a million little earworms.
Yola’s punching in that weight class. Take “Whatever You Want,” a country-tinged toe-tapper that finds the singer running her throat raw on an undeniable chorus as twangy guitars keep her from cracking into a million pieces. "Whatever you want, baby / Whatever you need maybe / Whatever you want I can’t give,” she insists with a power that makes this whole futile love thing feel a lot more fun than it is.
There’s nowhere on the album with a more drastic inverse relationship between “this makes me want to shake all of my ligaments on a dance floor” and “time to sob now” than “Break the Bough.” Piano keys tumble like Elton, horns quack like Daffy, snares pop like Orville. Yola’s powerful, rangey voice plays Mario Kart over three minutes and 20 seconds of a track that takes you to a party in an abandoned church.
It’s a song inspired by her mother’s death.
“Silently break the bough / Fall into the deepest sleep / Dream of mangoes on the tree / Sugar cane and shoeless feet,” Yola wails in the song before urging her departed mother to fly.
Pain laces all the sweetest notes of “Stand For Myself,” from twinkly “Like a Photograph” to dreamy “Now You’re Here,” where the narrator’s love may have returned, but she’s still gonna tell us how much things have sucked lately.
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The scorching single “Diamond Studded Shoes” concerns a different hurt — wealth inequality. But trust, class consciousness never sounded so invigorating. Over a bluesy swing, Yola tells tales of the man coming for poor folks' paychecks, of the powers-that-be keeping everyday people divided. “So don't you tell me it's gonna be alright / When we know it isn't,” she sings with way more of a smile than you’d expect.
Yola told entertainment outlet Vulture that “Stand For Myself” is a personal record in ways that her first, “Walk Through Fire,” couldn’t be. After establishing herself in Nashville, she was able to select her own co-writers to finish songs that had been percolating for years, also synthesizing all of her musical tastes into a remarkably cogent collection. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who produced the first album, returned, allowing Yola to continue their work with a new familiarity.
(Side note: All of Yola's press hits for this album cycle have been a gosh-darn delight. I recommend her guest spot on Nicole Byer's "Why Won't You Date Me?" podcast.)
In 2019, my colleague Peter Blackstock — as big a Yola stan as you’re likely to meet — talked to the singer when she performed at Austin City Limits Music Festival about her plans for what would become “Stand For Myself.”
She said that "the whole process of albums for me is an exploration. I’m not necessarily trying to do the same thing verbatim. I’m always trying to carry on the story that we’ve been talking about — everything I’ve been talking about over this past year. It has been about those gray areas between genres and telling that story. So we’re just going to carry on telling that. That’s my mission.”
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Well, she did it. “Stand For Myself” melts a million different sounds into one that’s distinctly Yola’s own. She uses it to sing stories of hurt, but she does it with power. That’s where the hope sits — those good times that we’re promised will indeed come, because there’s no mountain you can’t obliterate with these songs in your ear. You just gotta stand up.
Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @webbeditor.
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We Love This So Much is an occasional series of pop culture recommendations from Austin360.
Yola will perform on Sunday as part of Outlaw Music Festival at Germania Insurance Amphitheater at Circuit of the Americas. Willie Nelson & Family, Chris Stapleton and Ryan Bingham are also on the bill. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are required for entry. Go to germaniaamp.com for more information.