Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

Holly Humberstone – Vanilla

We continue Sound of 2021 coverage with a singer-songwriter and friend of Lewis Capaldi — no, don’t close the tab…


Joshua Minsoo Kim: Holly Humberstone’s made songs that feel like Phoebe Bridgers and Bon Iver for the Lorem set, but “Vanilla” stands out despite immediate comparisons that could be made to Maggie Rogers. The pre-chorus’s topline sells it: sweet and wistful, swaying downwards like a leaf falling from a tree. It sounds graceful, but she’s really bracing for a confession that comes in the chorus (and one that’s more for herself than for anyone else). “The truth is, I have my best nights without you,” she sings over a peppy beat. The song nevertheless remains pensive, and this mix of charm and mild sorrow is apt; she captures the allure of remaining with a lover and the dissonance that comes from knowing they’ll never commit.

Alfred Soto: Pop music history is replete with songs explaining why characters need aloneness; few of them detail the step before the admission. Maybe our lovers hold our attention less than the stories we tell about them. As euphoric as an epiphany, “Vanilla” limns this scenario. Holly Humberstone still sounds peeved by the prospect, which compensates for the generic mix tape arrangement.

John Pinto: The motorik drum programming, hazy synths, and fried guitars scream “earnest mixtape anthem,” but “Vanilla” is really a kiss-off to a partner who’s boring as tar. All that “We are infinite” swooning, flush with “It’s not me, it’s you” sternness, makes for some (and funny) contrast, like Holly Humberstone can just barely hear the capital-r Romantic possibilities the instrumental aspires to. She might even get to live out that teen movie dream, if she can only ditch this poor sap first.

Rachel Saywitz: I find the kinetic instrumental of “Vanilla” more compelling than its main melody, which drags and stagnates through each verse. It’s in the chorus where both elements come together well: A mix of echoey guitars and electric piano form a cloud of uncertainty, befitting Humberstone’s distaste with her monotonous relationship. 

Andrew Karpan: Quirky British pop-rock that sounds like something accidentally left off that Nilüfer Yanya record. Curiously, “Vanilla” discovers its most inspired moment in a fuzzy guitar solo that succeeds, finally, in making its romantic breakup-cum-quarter life crisis feel important, and suggests that Humberstone might have a more interesting career in shredding.

Leah Isobel: The conversational tweak of “you should know/here it goes…” nudges this closer to real extract than imitation vanillin. Accurately labeled supermarket product — yum!

Dorian Sinclair: Vanilla isn’t a flashy flavour, and like its namesake, Humberstone’s “Vanilla” doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself. The production is fuzzy and dreamlike, and her delivery is laid-back — diffident, almost. But the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate the details. The instruments know exactly when to come forward and when to bow out, and the lyrics are low-key some of my favourites I’ve heard in a while, particularly the excellent first verse. When vanilla is deployed well, and you take the time to really savour it, it can elevate a confection from tasty to sublime.

Katherine St Asaph: I was so close to just quoting the “we kept it lukewarm, oh, so vanilla” bit, maybe mentioning Julia Michaels or Maggie Rogers or how actual vanilla is the product of killing and sweating, what The Dry Down called “a deviant act in succession,” then dropping a [3], done. But get through the strained “relatable” (and cuttable) first verse and unengaging twitch of an arrangement and there’s reward: a chorus that opens up with resonant guitar clangs (which sound just like “Steel Wheels,” so maybe there’s some emotional muscle memory at work), and a scenario that’s strikingly sketched and actually relatable, or maybe just for me. Humberstone details with excruciating accuracy the feeling of being in a relationship (or at least a whatever-works-for-you) with someone fine, acceptable; or even objectively gorgeous, enough to date actual models instead, and presumably fascinating, definitely more than you. But it’s one where every time you’re together you can’t stop thinking, so hard you’re afraid the thoughts might fall out: “Why is this happening? Why are we doing this? You’re thinking that too, right?” Or perhaps “Tell me I’m wrong,” as Humberstone sings — pleading not to repair things but to just have them acknowledged, as if somewhere offstage was a director who’d yell “CUT!” and so everyone can stop suspending disbelief. There isn’t, of course, so out of the (admittedly clunky) surrounding lyrics Humberstone pulls an epitaph, final and impervious to argument: “I have my best nights without you.” The chorus rings away around her, a sigh of relief.

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