Having wowed audiences with her Broadway debut as Celie in The Color Purple and slipped into the roles of Aretha Franklin and Harriet Tubman, Cynthia Erivo has already proven herself to be something of a chameleon.
With a Tony and a Grammy for her stage work already under her belt, not to mention two Oscar nominations, a debut full-length album of original music was probably as inevitable as it was eagerly anticipated.
Living up to expectations like that can be a tall order, but Erivo pulls it off with Ch. 1 Vs. 1 (★★★★☆). The album is a bright, slickly produced mashup of different pop stylings, with heavy soul, R&B, and gospel influences throughout.
Erivo swings almost jarringly between moods from track to track, seemingly never wanting to be tied down to any one thing. If it appears to lack cohesion at times, it’s because this album is fundamentally about exploring and baring her own heart and mind in all their complexity.
Unsurprisingly, Erivo’s vocals are the star attraction, delivering an impressive amount of passion and pathos in tracks like “I Might Be In Love With You,” a reflective, vulnerable song that delivers exactly the heartbroken confession of love it promises.
She revisits that heartbreak a few cuts later with the piano ballad “You’re Not Here,” a plaintive ode to picking up and moving on. As much emotion as she packs into these songs, though, Erivo’s voice also shines on the more outward-looking compositions, like the acoustic, guitar-forward pandemic ballad “Sweet Sarah” and the stirring protest number, “Hero.”
Erivo brings just as much force to the more celebratory and triumphant songs. The album’s lead single “The Good,” released earlier this year, turned heads as much for its soaring vocals and relentlessly catchy rhythm as for the accompanying video that starkly and beautifully reflects on the love between two Black women.
“Glowing Up” sums up the album’s M.O. with the lyric, “Diamonds don’t shine ’til they’ve been buried alive.” Another real standout unlike anything else on the album is the transcendent “Tears,” a song that excavates a brief moment of connection with a stranger, sung over haunting, echoing backup vocals.
With Ch. 1, Vs. 1, Erivo, who co-wrote every track, has set out to prove herself not just as a singer-songwriter but as a storyteller too.
The stories she tells, of triumph, heartbreak, and finding the light in oneself and in the world, may be light on specifics but they are that much more compelling in their universality. They have been told before and will be told again, but never the same way twice and rarely with vocal talent like Erivo’s behind them.
Ch. 1, Vs. 1 is available on streaming and for purchase. Visit www.cynthiaerivo.net.
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