On her last album Adia Victoria was deep in the Silences, wrestling with death, the devil and the blues. Last year, in response to the turbulent traumas inflicted on her country, she released the potent single ‘South Gotta Change’, a rallying call for a new American future. Interesting then that ‘A Southern Gothic’ does not include that song, offering instead a narrative arc which explores the push and pull of the place she has long been ‘stuck in’, ultimately finding some peace within the oppressive reality of living in the South.
The Oxford definition of the Southern Gothic genre is one which includes the ‘presence of irrational, horrific and transgressive thoughts and impulses, grotesque characters, dark humour and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation’. This literary tradition is often associated with white writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner but it equally belongs to African American writers such as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Albert Murray amongst others. Adia Victoria has always worked within this tradition, linking it to the blues and casting it in a new musical form.
Alice Walker wrote of her childhood, ‘My mother said I was writing before I was crawling, I wrote in the dirt with a twig.’ And so too in the opening song Magnolia Blues Adia finds herself writing in the dirt under a magnolia tree. Such nostalgic, pastoral images of the South have long covered up the bloody brutality of its history. Here Adia honours the tree and its dirt as a symbol of that complex reality, recognising the truth of the place which lives in her bones, her voice, her art.
As well as her visceral use of place in her lyrics and sound, her deep connection with the African American blueswomen of music history is also what makes her so distinctive. No one else sings like this. On Mean Hearted Woman she twists her voice into all kinds of sinisterly sweet places, expressing the narrator’s violent and murderous rage at her cheating lover.
This leads us into the traditional blues song Born to Die, which is aided by her friends Kyshona Armstrong, Margo Price and Jason Isbell. A menacing rebuke to a cheating man, it’s also a reminder of the unifying power of music to overcome historic boundaries of place, time and race.
The hypocritical hell of religion is told on Whole World Knows, a story of a preacher’s daughter who becomes an unashamed heroin addict. Secrets are impossible in a small southern town. Troubled Mind continues that story, offering an unsettling, eerie evocation of the evils of modern life with ‘junk’ in the narrator’s veins as a way to survive.
Far From Dixie underlines the fact that the Southern dream of ‘dixie’ is long dead, if it ever existed at all. Being away from home allows her to see the reality of where she’s from. Musically she also returns to the South and the past on My Oh My – a haunting take on traditional folk, aided by Stone Jack Jones.
On Deep Water she has had enough of black women being anyone’s ‘saviour’. White America has to learn to swim for itself, before it pulls everyone around it into the abyss. Won’t give you my life to keep you alive, she sings with justified exasperation. She says a prayer for her neighbour and walks away, offering a silent wave of pity to the drowning man who is only blind because he won’t open his eyes to save himself.
Personal demons recur throughout the album, linking the struggles of her own life to the place she’s from. ‘Times are hard in Nashville,’ she admits on Carolina Bound, dreaming of returning to the pines of her home state. The South itself is no monolith, different places are oppressive in different ways.
The album finishes with South for the Winter, a sweet duet with Matt from The National (Aaron from the band produced her last album and she has toured with them in the past). Together they renounce their ghostly, exiled loneliness and by the end of the song their goth hearts have melted into pure light.
Maisha Wester wrote that the Southern Gothic ‘can be understood as a genre that is aware of the impossibility of escaping racial haunting’. And so it is true that Adia Victoria’s music and the characters she creates can’t ever leave the South with all its ghosts and historic suffering. Despite this she refuses to become an invisible woman, won’t let the world crush her spirit. The music speaks to us and we should listen to her ultimately hopeful conclusion.
Interview with Adia: https://americanahighways.org/2021/09/13/interview-adia-victoria-on-whats-new/
Adia’s podcast ‘Call & Response’: https://call-response.simplecast.com
I have added ‘South for the Winter’ to my 2021 playlist which you can find here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5ZgUGNi2Kzz7SeaTSXYzmY?si=CNgj9LxuSyOqq4xOQA5R7Q