Despite its title, Olivia Dean’s debut is as polished and confident as they come
It’s been four years since Olivia Dean released her debut single, ‘Password Change’. It’s a jazzy piece of indie pop that sees Dean struggle to understand her partner, delivering a list of grievances with a pronounced London accent. Looking back at the song today, all of the ingredients that make Dean’s debut album shine are there – the confidently blunt lyricism, the emotive vocals, and an instrumental that compels you to move. Messy isn’t being described as a “much-anticipated” album only because it’s taken four years to arrive – we’ve always known what Dean could be capable of on a full-length release.
Messy impressively meets those high expectations. A smooth, introspective collection of jazz and soul-influenced pop, it sees Dean exploring love, identity and self-worth in her usual to-the-point style. It’s a way of writing that pulls many of the songs out of time, with lyrics that feel as if they could be from almost any decade. “Maybe it’s the loving in your eyes/Maybe it’s the magic in the wine,” she sings on ‘Dive.’ “Old flame, where do I get something true?” she asks an ex-lover on ‘Dangerously Easy’. “I know it’s danger/But I want your love to be mine,” she confesses on ‘Danger.’ There isn’t a clunky line in sight.
Perhaps the greatest area of growth between ‘Password Change’ and Messy is in Dean’s vocals, which shine across the album. From the gentle acoustic wonderings of ‘UFO’ to the resonant balladeering of ‘Everybody’s Crazy’, Dean consistently sounds older than her years, mature both sonically and in her emotional delivery. Title track ‘Messy’ sees her make use of a stunning lower register to deliver a heartfelt message to everyone still trying to figure it all out. “It’s okay if it’s messy – I’m on your side,” she promises.
Aside from Dean’s polished jazz-pop, Messy also offers surprises. ‘UFO’ is a pretty and unexpected opening – just Dean, an acoustic guitar and a vocoder trying to navigate new love. There’s the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘I Could Be A Florist’, which sits at under 90 seconds and reads like a poem. “I could be a florist round the corner from Rye Lane,” Dean sings over gentle piano chords, ruminating about a simpler way of living.
But far and away the album’s most triumphant moment comes in the form of closer ‘Carmen’. Dean delivers an achingly beautiful ode to her grandmother, a member of the Windrush generation. “You transplanted a family tree/And part of it grew into me,” sings Dean. Driven by a desire to have her grandmother’s story heard (“Never got a jubilee – I’ll throw it for you,” promises Dean), the singer-songwriter celebrates her family’s matriarch in a track both tender and joyful. Carmen’s own voice bookends the song, full of emotion as she describes her journey to the UK to her granddaughter. Messy manages to be something both universally relatable and deeply personal – not a new formula, but Dean applies it in a way that never feels disingenuous.