Back Of My Mind (Sony)
The disappointment felt with each listen of what is officially the first album from Gabi Wilson under her H.E.R. name/project, initially felt like surprise. This was meant to be better. This was meant to be great. This isn’t.
But that surprise reflected a memory lapse as well as the long tail of a great memory.
Sure, her 2018 breakthrough mixtape/compilation of early recordings, I Used to Know Her: The Prelude, captured a fully sprung musical mind that was matched by a voice of surprising serenity, a flair for constructive/destructive guitar work, and an individual, quite defiant, attitude.
It was a couple of year’s work for a someone barely 21, and it was on fire with its blend of Alicia Keys and Sade, ‘90s R&B and ‘70s soul, Stevie Wonder and Prince.
However, the second collection of songs that year, I Used to Know Her: Part 2, was already showing worrying signs that uniformity was feeling more natural than adventure. There was a lot of the mystic about the best of her, and it mesmerised, yet the final sentences in my review were “But I think Wilson will need to push herself further out, challenge herself to find new ways with this particular musical elixir to have the most effect next time. I’m rather looking forward to it.”
I was, but I don’t think she did.
Let’s say however, that the best moments on Back Of My Mind are very good. Mean It balances a glistening, still, surface and a turbulent interior, within a slowly stretching out piece of meditative soul that shows more of its hurt on every listen. Cheat Code translates its lope into a curling smoke trail that is both pulse and ephemeral, touching lightly at all times. Find Her Way retains its cool distance all the way but still has kinetic energy, especially in the verses from Lil Baby, that pull the chassis not just ride it. And For Anyone is just off kilter enough, leaning into its jazz arrhythmia, to cut against the smooth bias.
If you add the sharp and soaring guitar that at first creeps in, and then slices through Hold On, and the sensual loosening of bounds in Don’t that sends the guitar where, say, Prince’s falsetto might have gone with a degree of lasciviousness, you’ve got, five and a half really interesting parts.
That’s not a bad return on a standard size track listing of 10 or 12. But here’s where Wilson hits her other problem: there are 21 tracks on this record, stretching things out to just short of 80 minutes.
Again, that’s not excessive necessarily, but the impact of the best moments is dissipated by the very pleasant but not essential tracks around them, which means the “journey” is an amble when a sustained run is required.
It’s true that that disappointment felt needs to be understood as in part being down to expectation as much as realisation. However, a smooth, attractive piece of contemporary soul, laced with the occasional serrated edge of hip hop, is not revelatory in 2021.
There is still a feeling that H.E.R/Wilson has revelatory within her reach. But this isn’t it.