Reviewed by: Asher Wolf
Tolkien unwittingly presaged the current music industry. Most musicians struggle to subsist, but a lucky few come within the grasp of commercial prosperity. In a Sméagol-like twist of fate, however, the achievement of such popularity often sparks a resolute fear of giving it up. Artists in this position will diligently serve their newfound mass audience, meeting the expectations of many instead of exceeding the expectations of some. In other words, when artists gain exposure they often try to broaden their appeal proportionately, diluting the qualities that earned them recognition in the first place with generic pop so as to leverage their superior commercial position.
Upon my first listen through A Prayer, I was afraid Danielia Cotton had fallen into this trap. Throughout her decade long career, the singer-songwriter has sunk her teeth into varieties of rock, soul, gospel, and blues, wedding AC/DC and Tina Turner in stylistically modern matrimony. But A Prayer marks a departure from Cotton’s vintage-tinged, African-American, rock based aesthetic; the EP is unabashedly poppy. Fortunately, Cotton incorporated pop for the right reasons: her triumphant, sing-songy choruses, though off-putting at first glance, add an epic, celebratory facet to her rock and roll attitude, broadening her appeal without white-washing her artistic identity.
A Prayer’s pop elements aren’t so much blended in as they are grafted on – and not subtly either. Soaring, melodic hooks come out of nowhere and fade just as quickly back into the orchestral rock palette from whence they came. Though this polarized approach is rather jarring, it proves effective. Instead of sounding contrived in their mixture, the two modes complement each other like an extension of the time honored verse-chorus structure that forms the backbone of modern songcraft. Imagine some brilliant stylist put latter day Muse in a centrifuge and spun the pop to the periphery – poptimistic mega-hooks and hardheaded rock and roll grit coexist without compromising one another.
“Vocal Prayer Interlude/Afraid to Burn” best illustrates A Prayer’s dyadic styling. Unsurprisingly, the track starts with an echoey, circular prayer, gospel but in a minor key. The piano accompaniment carries over to the second part of the mash up until the whole affair is blindsided by a ‘90s-sounding anthemic hook that ushers in the vast, pounding accompaniment. Cotton slips gracefully back into the parallel minor with a simmering guitar riff that sounds particularly dark in contrast. After that moment, the EP felt like a Rolling Stones concert with the knowledge that Taylor Swift is lurking behind the curtains.
The opening number, “Seesaw”, is the most stylistically consistent track. The lyricism of the melody, delivered with stadium rock grandeur, comes off sounding vaguely Disney-like. Fortunately, Cotton’s raw, sultry vocals comes to the rescue, providing an earthy lifeline to the slick production that threatens to spiral off into cosmic territory. Raspy around the edges, her singing is distinctive and emotive, full and tempered whether Cotton is belting or letting words slip out in a bluesy trickle.
“Anything But Ordinary” is the strongest of the five compositions. The funky, guitar-driven groove builds momentum throughout, gliding effortlessly over metric shifts and a finely crafted, highly dynamic arrangement. The song climaxes with a home-run bridge, in which Cotton breaks into an epic, seductive falsetto, making it difficult not to smile.
A Prayer may not be as down to earth as the rest of Cotton’s oeuvre, but the quality of its songwriting and delivery make it as juicy and substantial as anything the singer has produced thus far. Cotton’s stylistic exploration will catch some fans off guard, but it’s obvious that she has achieved the pinnacle of the sound she was going for. Lush, tasteful arrangements support the entirety of the record, so even the near misses are charmingly bold. If this marks the start of a new phase in Cotton’s career, I’m excited to see where she takes it. May her next full-length release be equally enjoyable.