Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that about half of the state of Oklahoma was not under the state’s jurisdiction but actually that of a conglomerate of tribes. The ruling, which acknowledges the existence of a Creek reservation, provided a victory for Oklahoma’s large Native American population, one that would now be able to oversee State criminal law. Wins like these, along with the recently announced name change of the Washington Redskins football team, come after years and years of protests and legal battles brought on by Indigenous Americans. On a smaller scale these measured wins, with surprisingly broad legal and societal implications, set the stage for the environment that Samantha Crain, a native Oklahoman and Choctaw Indian, will release her sixth full length album.
But a lot has happened in Crain’s personal life too. Since her last album, 2017’s You Had Me At Goodbye, Crain has found herself basically starting from scratch on her music, reassessing how she writes and performs and the entire way she’s crafted her albums up to this point. After sustaining injuries in multiple car accidents that left her without the use of her hands, Crain began writing the first single off her new album, “An Echo”. That song, both purging her recent work and a literal template for Crain’s new outlook, is a sparse and lyrically heavy introduction. While the rest of the songs here may not share in that broad assessment of her life and career, they do represent the most consistent batch of tracks from the young artist yet.
“An Echo” may be the key to how this album gestated – the beginning of Crain’s second stage in her career – but the song itself holds much more in common with Crain’s previous work. Hushed and emotional, with theatric sonic shifts and an over-emphasis on her lyrics, it manages to correct and do as much as can be done with her past writing ethos. The rest of these songs may not seem too outwardly left field, but unlike her past work Crain’s tracks now lean towards either pure catharsis or loud, fun rockers, employing a confidence that has finally found its way to the forefront.
With frequent collaborator John Vanderslice producing, Crain manages to remain comfortable while making the new stylistic shifts she needed to make. Those lavish accompaniments make A Small Death her most layered and heavily produced album yet and give even the weakest songs a full, rich texture. Compared to Crain’s past albums, each band member is given the opportunity to shine and take centre stage, acting more like a full band than just another backing band. Whether it is Trevor Galvin’s saxophone on “Reunion” and “Garden Dove” or Kyle Reid’s pedal steel guitar on “Little Bits” and “An Echo”, their lush instrumental performances heighten these tracks to be the best on the album.
“Reunion” in particular uses the band to its best effect, with each member seemingly taking turns – either with their piano runs on the verses or the creeping saxophone and pedal steel that keep emerging to add emphasis to Crain’s vocals. While the verses take their time and let everyone flex to great effect, it’s the huge chorus where each musician comes together with a great, bombastic earworm that makes for the most pop-friendly moment on the record.
Contrarily, the weakest songs here tend to be the sparsest. On “High Horse” and “Joey” an emotive chorus and some great ebbs and flows help propel these tracks forward but in the end they suffer from a little too much empty space. “Holding to the Edge of Night” has some similar issues but with its slick chorus and nice clarinet noodling, the song remains memorable. A similar technique is also employed on the penultimate track “When We Remain”, a swelling and explosive ballad delivered in the Choctaw language. A beautiful and somber song, it not only brings the listener back to level ground, but affirms Crain’s heritage above any substantive meaning.
These songs feel like they needed to be written, not just at a time where Crain’s platform should be expanding, but as her best album. The music here feels more necessary, more vibrant and more purposeful than any of Crain’s past work. With a full band being expertly utilised, she is able to present the turbulent life she’s dealt with over the last few years with an immediacy that can cut through the rest of the crowd. With the recent strides for Choctaws in Oklahoma, and now that Crain has found her footing, this deeply personal album could prove the most important of her career.
A Small Death is released Friday 17th July via Real Kind Records.