Holly Humberstone: Paint My Bedroom Black

Holly Humberstone had a whirlwind 2021. Around the release of her debut EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, she earned touring spots with Olivia Rodrigo and Girl in Red, collaborated with fellow British success story Sam Fender, and won the Rising Star award at the BRITs. Her success was unsurprising, considering how squarely her work fit in the zeitgeist, indebted to Taylor Swift’s confessional pop writing and Phoebe Bridgers’ snarky folk music, married to vocoders and intricate synth programming straight out of a 1975 song (Matt Healy even co-wrote a track). Accordingly, her debut full-length Paint My Bedroom Black has all the angst of a young-star-dealing-with-fame record. Humberstone took the time to define herself as an artist outside the hype cycle: an endearingly wordy songwriting voice elevated by expansive, kinetic production.

Like her contemporaries, Humberstone excels at melodrama, but hers is more deliberate in its execution. It’s one thing to feel remorse for being a bad partner; it’s another to call yourself the Antichrist while the backing track plays homage to Kanye’s “Runaway.” You can want someone you shouldn’t, or you can declare, “You’re the center of the universe, my sorry ass revolves around you.” Humberstone lands a careful balance of pop theatrics and earnest emotion that might be overbearing if she wasn’t equally adept at more intimate expressions. She’s a strong enough writer that it’s disappointing when songs like “Kissing in Swimming Pools” end with stark lyrics like, “I just want to be alone with you.”

Humberstone’s music works just fine in stripped-down acoustic settings, but her producers—primarily Phoebe Bridgers’ collaborator Ethan Gruska and former Dog Is Dead frontman Rob Milton—turn every song into a holographic, immersive environment. Even the relatively conventional R&B ballad “Girl” is full of piano stabs, distorted synths, and Gruska’s murky rubber bridge guitars. “Flatlining,” one of several songs produced with Jonah Summerfield and Noah Conrad, is the most surprising experiment, with a manic backing track that nods to Jersey Club as much as it does Lorde.

The only outright misstep is “Cocoon,” where a generic 2010s-indie rock arrangement flattens some of the record’s most intense lines (“I’ve become a taxidermied version of myself”). Throughout the rest of the album, the production only elevates her writing. Even on minor tracks like the vocoder interlude “Baby Blues” or the stiff duet with TikTok star D4VD, “Superbloodmoon,” there’s a lovely narrative or an unexpected vocal effect that saves things from becoming too mundane. At the end of electro-country ballad “Ghost Me,” the drums fall away, and Humberstone includes a goofy voice memo of a friend (the Lauren of “Lauren”) comparing herself to a scene from SpongeBob. It’s undeniably silly but oddly relatable, getting by on sincerity once the novelty wears away.

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Holly Humberstone: Paint My Bedroom Black