London-based Olivia Dean, 24, released her debut album Messy (EMI Records) in late June. As featured on my Staff Picks list, Messy is a collection of delicate and soft reflections on young adulthood that I was immediately drawn to. Oscillating between unbridled love and joy and melancholy reflections on life, Dean showcases a vulnerable ethos, making the record an ideal companion for musing on one’s own life and inner world.
Recorded over two weeks in her hometown, Dean led the album with her heart, not her mind. Leaning into her own creativity, Dean’s first priority was pleasing herself by making a record that she loved. Her relaxed attitude shines through with music that simply is, rather than pretending to be something it’s not. Messy boasts simple melodic patterns, tight and straight-to-the-point narratives against a backdrop of whimsy keys, jazzy brass ensembles, smooth rhythms, and even a steel pan. Dean’s musical landscape is reminiscent of the United Kingdom’s previously most iconic neo-soul export, Amy Winehouse. In “Dive”, a vibrant portrayal of recklessly falling in love, one finds traces of Winehouse’s “Valerie” and “You Know I’m No Good”.
Messy’s strongest point is Dean’s instinct for self-reflection. In “Ladies Room”, she meditates on a boy who holds her back and how to let that go, via an ode to the unifying experience of drunken exchanges with strangers in the women’s restroom of a bar. On “The Hardest Part”, an earlier single, she ruminates on growing out of a teenage romance. She’s both vulnerable and self-assured, presenting an antidote for the post-break-up blues in song.
On the album’s title track, Dean relinquishes herself from the urge to present as put-together, singing ‘It goes, you can let it / It’s okay to regret it / I’m on your side’. Singing along feels like therapy through repetitive affirmations. In the penultimate, “Everybody’s Crazy”, Dean observes the universality of anxiety and insecurity. As with earlier tracks, simplicity allows her meaning room to breathe.
Dean dedicates the album’s final track, “Carmen”, to her grandma, who immigrated to the UK from Grenada as a part of the Windrush generation. She honors the quintessential immigrant story: the courageous young immigrant, against all odds, starting anew in a foreign land for future generations of one’s kin. Her gratitude for this unrequitable debt is evident when she sings “You transplanted a family tree / And a part of it grew into me”.
The album chronicles the beginning of a new relationship in “Danger”, a standout single with a groovy rhythm. It encapsulates the anxiety of entering a new relationship, which can be particularly daunting after a recent heartbreak. It’s a reflection of Dean’s happy-go-lucky attitude and persistent optimism, which is the common thread in the entire album. Even her sad songs feel hopeful about the future and relish in her evident confidence. It’s not easy to write a record with depth but it’s even harder to make it expectant and reassuring despite being, well, messy. It feels easy to give in to our personal problems amidst the daunting pressures of today’s stressors and troubles with blunt gloominess, but Dean shines by doing the opposite. This is a happy record, deviating from what we’ve been accustomed to in the current pop landscape—simply put, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Buket is recent graduate of the University of Georgia (Music Business Alum) and the current Editor-in-Chief of Vinyl Mag. She believes that a sincere lover of music can find something to like in just about any song. She loves to write to escape the grueling drudgery of capitalism. She is currently on a gap year abroad, spending her free time drumming up new ideas for Vinyl Mag and trying to beat her previous Spotify Wrapped "My Minutes Listened" record.