Most writers tend to heed the advice of Mark Twain by writing what they know. That advice also applies to many singer-songwriters. And what they know often centers on emotions or what they are feeling as they experience love, relationships, death, grief, jealousy you name it. And so it goes for 20-something, Madison Cunningham. After three studio albums, three EPs, and Grammy nominations, she’s clearly an artist who is on a career assent. And with her latest album, Revealer, she’s also an artist whose music is growing more complex and sophisticated as she moves from “up and coming” to one who has arrived.
It’s always satisfying for music critics and fans to hear an artist’s growth from album to album. On Revealer, Cunningham is traveling down some fairly well-trodden songwriting paths, but doing so with some very satisfying musical flourishes. One listen to Revealer will lay bare the fact that Cunningham is an accomplished guitarist whose unique style tends to favor melodic, yet somewhat dissonant, triplets in her playing. The effect of this style of playing is that it engenders a slightly uncomfortable feeling for the listener. That’s evident on a handful of the 11 tracks that make up the record – and featured prominently on the opener, “All I’ve Ever Known.” Lyrically, the song is very evocative of a literal journey (In a fifteen passenger band to Ohio/The Chrysler invention hums and blows/Warm air through the vents sends it straight to the bone) that morphs into an emotional one about a relationship that’s clearly ended. What lies ahead for the narrator? Well, it’s not entirely clear, but that’s life sometimes. Nothing in life is certain (except death and taxes), which is why the song has an open-ended quality to it (You’re all I’ve ever known/You’re the only thing that I know/And I’m afraid of what I don’t, don’t know).
“Hosptial” is probably the most radio-friendly song of the collection. A catchy and bold guitar riff gives the song a very Sheryl Crow feel that’s accessible, hooky and clearly ready-made for Triple-A radio.
And while most of the songs on Revealer are head-nodding good, where Cunningham excels is on “Life According To Raechel,” a waltzy emotional tour de force about Cunningham’s relationship with her grandmother – and her complicated feelings about her grandmother’s sudden death. Its spare string arrangement anchors a song largely about regret, but Cunningham really hits all the right emotional notes by singing in a way that expresses both beauty and ache at the same time. Very few singers in her generation can do that with a sense of authenticity, but Cunningham is writing about her emotions without holding back on how complicated they can be.
Overall, Revealer is a very confident-sounding album from a singer-songwriter who has been recording since 2014. While her previous Grammy-nominated album Who Are You Now has a somewhat similar sound, Revealer has many more layers of production that give the songs a great sense of intricacy – which was something absent in her previous record. Credit, in part, goes to producers Tyler Chester and Mike Elizondo for giving the record a more sonically fuller feel. However, a big part of the album’s strength lies in Cunningham’s talent. Not only is she a gifted guitarist, but the album credits note that she plays bass, drums, cello, mellotron, piano, and percussion. That’s an impressive array of instruments she brings to the table. Add to that the fact that she writes and sings all her own songs – with some co-writing help from Chester, Elizondo, Dan Wilson, and Mikky Ekko – underscores how much talent and vision she has at a fairly young age. That’s a big reason why listening to Revealer is such a refreshing experience. Hearing someone who can write compelling songs, sing with a good range, play guitar in a unique way, and buck the trend of using computer-created loops in favor of real instruments makes me hopeful for the future of pop and rock music. Computers have helped make the recording process more affordable to many musicians. However, there’s something human that gets lost in technology. On Revealer, Madison Cunningham has made a very human record – which is something of a rarity these days.