Somebody lit a fire under The Staves’ porch. The sister trio from the UK normally construct daydreams that trail along somewhere between The Corrs’ syrupy harmonies and early ’70s American folk, but here, they bite. If I Was pushes into the rotten heart of moving on from heartbreak, aided by a producer who is a master of heartache himself, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The reality of love is that sometimes it doesn’t last. One look at the song titles here, and it’s like you’re passing someone the match they’ll use to burn old love letters: “No Me, No You, No More”, “Damn It All”, and “Sadness Don’t Own Me”. Unlike Dead & Born & Grown, the Staves’ 2012 debut, If I Was is 43 minutes of emotional pulverization.
That intensity isn’t tied to the beautiful sinkhole of interlinking harmonies or the meandering tunes of folk mysticism. It’s tied to the songs themselves. The ambling licks on “Blood I Bled” find The Staves sounding defiant but staying hypnotically low-key, while the transcendent “No Me, No You, No More” delivers the album’s first goosebumps. There’s an intimacy to Camilla, Emily, and Jessica’s voices that makes it easy to imagine them all curled up on your couch, slurping away at hot toddies, noodling on guitar while jotting down lyrics on scraps of paper.
These songs relate to one another in conventional ways, but reveal scenarios often shaped by trauma, tragedy, and insight. The orchestral lushness during the syncopated “Make It Holy” uses Emily’s voice as a guiding light, a communal uprising placed above Vernon’s backing vocals (similar to how he lit up “Crown the Pines”, a song by his Bon Iver-mate S. Carey). When it intensifies, it quietly overwhelms you.
Some of the most memorable moments of If I Was find the Staveley-Taylor sisters at their most content, but troubled by hindsight. On “Damn It All”, the album’s emotional crescendo, they sing, “Even though I love you, I want you to go.” What might sound like a one-note line becomes, thanks to Vernon, a melting of inflections. The song’s mastery lies in his seductive approach to pain: He finds the darkest corners of their music, the things you can’t look at directly but can’t look away from either. At 3:15, he matches their ruminations with strumming guitars (“Oh well damn it all, I don’t want it all”), using dense drums to illuminate the real beauty of The Staves.
Though these songs are stripped down and subtle, they achieve a heightened emotional state — the understanding that the people who are meant to stick with you will be the ones still standing once the smoke clears.
Essential Tracks: “No Me, No You, No More”, “Damn It All”, and “Make It Holy”