In Anne Sexton’s introductory note for her book of poems, Live or Die, she “apologizes for the fact that [these poems] read like a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy. But...the order of their creation might be of interest to some readers.”
Whether or not Elizabeth Willis’ songs on her self-titled album were placed in a similar kind of order, they can definitely be characterized as introspective as they explore their own "case of melancholy." It’s no surprise that Willis thanks Dostoevsky and Beethoven in her liner notes. You can hear their influence in the restless piano and the contours of Willis’ voice, which fall somewhere between Fiona Apple and an indie lo-fi version of Sarah Vaughn.
We are in fever chart territory–traveling with and within the artist. The plaintive "Overture," an instrumental of piano and violin, is moody as a desolate Scottish moor. Yet towards the end of the song, the drums come in. It’s not exactly Paxil, but the percussion is restorative. Willis often plays out this balance between lows and highs throughout the album. Many songs are decidedly contemplative: "One," "Thoughts," and "Don’t Worry." Others have more of an upbeat undertone, such as “4am” with its frenetic piano, and "(In) Love" with Willis’ vocals taking on an exuberant, higher key.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Scottish moors or contemplation. In fact, it’s the melancholy that gives depth and complexity to the steadfast hope in many of Willis’ lyrics: "It was in your eyes/A little hint of a blue sky." The album explores the connection between personal relationships, nature and self-awareness as Willis sings of loneliness, love, dreams of blackbirds, and walks under a starry sky.
A place for improvement is the overlap of vocals in "4am" and "Stars." I found it distracting to hear Willis singing with herself because it becomes more studio production than song. A few lyrics are obscure and abstract. "You'll be in my thoughts forever" could be any pop song. The honest vulnerability of Willis’ voice should be matched with more fully-developed lyrics.
Although this album is meditative, Willis’ fever chart for melancholy is one that is resolutely determined to not let the sadness get her down: "I’m going to find my way. I’m going to make mistakes. And move on." Elizabeth Willis is a promising artist who will definitely find her way.