Whether it’s a first therapy appointment or a first date, downloading an abridged version of yourself can feel like the most perfunctory of intimate experiences. For Dublin-based singer-songwriter Ailbhe Reddy, it’s far more interesting to think about what remains unsaid. On the title track of her debut album, Personal History, Reddy pines tentatively for her ex and “the romance of watching TV,” before the drums crash in to underscore her frustrated howl: “I don’t wanna go on dates/And hear personal histories.” Playing with the clinical undertones of the title, which is taken from the term for medical records, it’s simultaneously scathing and vulnerable. Compared to the softness of a lived-in relationship, Reddy seems to say, night after night spent sharing life stories with strangers feels procedural.
Fresh off a year of psychotherapy study, Reddy consciously deploys therapeutic language throughout the album. “I protect my ego,” she sings of a fight with her partner on “Between Your Teeth.” The result is a lyrical voice that flits between clinical detachment and startling closeness, combined with a sound that is gutsier and grungier than the brooding folk songs of her 2016 and 2017 EPs. Personal History feels more aligned with inspirations Reddy has named in the past, like Phoebe Bridgers, Big Thief, and Fiona Apple. While her songwriting might not be quite on par, Reddy similarly mixes streaks of anger and catharsis with biting, self-deprecating humor.
Previous EPs hinted at the emotional range of Reddy’s voice—as on 2017’s fragile “Relent”—but Personal History expands it hugely. Saving her powerful belt for only the most visceral moments, she shows a more restrained side on the somber, wintry piano ballad “Walk Away,” and evokes the light touch of Laura Marling on the gentle “Loyal.”
Not everything on the record is so inventive. “Time Difference” brings a fresh, upbeat feel to the tracklist, but its central concept—a long-distance relationship—feels under-developed. It operates on one level, but Reddy is capable of much more when she adds a layer of self-awareness to her angst. In the opening bars of “Self Improvement,” jangly guitar and harmonies set an uplifting tone as she sweetly sings: “I’m off the meds again…Until I can’t cope again.”
It’s these jarring details that elevate Personal History: the knife-edge of Reddy’s voice when she tells someone they “talk like a historian,” or the cold, anxious synth stabs on “Looking Happy,” a track about watching your ex live their best life on Instagram (“Just turn it off!” she pleads with herself on the chorus). Reddy easily inhabits an aloof, deadpan character—see the “Looking Happy” video, in which she holds a Wednesday Addams-style staring contest with camera—but the richness and openness of her voice removes the record from cynicism. Instead, Personal History constantly confronts us with emotional honesty, pressing on bruises that feel all too familiar.
Correction: A previous version of this review included mention of a song that was mistakenly included on an advanced copy of the album. That mention has been removed.
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