Sarah Darling is one of the most popular and beloved acts on the UK country scene. Although she’s based in Nashville, she’s been a regular visitor to the UK over the years, performing at C2C and Country Music Week as well as her own headline shows. Following her nomination for International Act of the Year at the British Country Music Association Awards and her biggest headline tour yet earlier this year, now she’s releasing her fifth studio album, Wonderland, the follow-up to 2017’s Dream Country.
The album opens with Blue Sky, a lighthearted romantic tune which sees Darling singing about the joys of being in love. I liked the poppy feel of the track and the touch of huskiness in her vocals, as well as the summery vibes (helped by the sound of seagulls at the end!). It’s a dreamy tune that echoes back to her previous record and one that sets the tone for the rest of the record.
There’s certainly plenty to please fans of Dream Country here, particularly on the first half of the album. The chilled-out A Boy Like You sees Darling’s vocals almost float over the folky melody, whilst Shine has an ethereal feel and shows off the gorgeous tone in her voice. Meanwhile, the yearning, orchestral London Fog wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to La La Land and Timelapse has a reflective, introspective quality enhanced by the heartbeat effect in the background and Darling’s open and honest lyrics.
That said, Darling definitely hasn’t been afraid to try different things here either. Call Me has a slight 80s influence and sassy, playful lyrics which put me in mind of Window Shopping by Liv Austen, and I loved the cheeky, flirtatious attitude of Light It Up with its funky bassline and rock-influenced drums. It’s not a side we’ve seen much of previously with Darling’s music and something I’d be interested to see her explore more of on her next record.
For me the standout tracks are the ones which put the emphasis firmly on Darling’s detailed lyrics and her vocal ability. The atmospheric, stomping Enjoy The Ride has a darker feel than some of the others, with vivid imagery of city streets and a strong sense of letting go, as Darling declares her independence. Meanwhile, piano ballad Diamonds has a soothing, lullaby-like feel which allows Darling’s angelic vocals to stand out, and the twangy, midtempo Fire strikes an ideal balance between staying true to oneself and giving into the feeling of restlessness, as well as bringing out the depth in Darling’s voice.
Two of my favourite songs on the album come towards the end. Dreams Fade Away starts off with a rollicking yet restrained piano intro, which sees Darling open up about not wanting to let go of an old relationship. She captures the bittersweet feeling of the lyrics really well and I found the rawness of her delivery very moving, as well as the optimistic ending. A Little Bit Of Rain, meanwhile, thematically echoes Garth Brooks’ classic The Thunder Rolls, as Darling tells the story of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. It’s an unsettling, downbeat song which shows the progress she’s made as a writer, particularly in terms of creating characters, and I’m intrigued to see her develop this further in future.
The last song on the record is Talk About The Weather, a piano-led track about encountering an old lover. Darling’s soft, subdued vocals reflect the song’s sense of loss really well and I love all the details she throws in there, like her ‘little blue house’. It’s a song that tugs at the heartstrings and its sense of what might have been gives it a lingering feel.
Overall, with Wonderland Sarah Darling has delivered another strong album of country-pop songs which also shows her being unafraid to branch out and experiment. It still retains all the hallmarks that made UK audiences fall in love with her, namely vivid lyrics, lush dreamy melodies and sweet vocals, but with some interesting touches that stop it from being too same. The whole record has a great summery feel about, especially on long drives – it feels like it was made for the open road – and I think it will appeal to fans old and new, with plenty of potential for where she might go next.
Track listing: 1. Blue Sky 2. Call Me 3. London Fog 4. A Boy Like You 5. Shine 6. Light It Up 7. Enjoy The Ride 8. Timelapse 9. Fire 10. Diamonds 11. Dreams Fade Away 12. A Little Bit Of Rain 13. Talk About The Weather Record label: Be Darling Release date: 7th June 2019
See Sarah Darling live in the UK this summer:
Saturday 13 July – FSA Festival, Nottingham
Saturday 27 July – Nashville Meets London
Sunday 4 August – Cambridge Folk Festival
Friday 13 September – British Country Music Festival, Blackpool