Sarah Howells’ debut album under the moniker Bryde, back in 2018, seemed like a dramatic shift following half a decade producing perfectly formed folk-pop musings as one half of Paper Aeroplanes. The Welsh singer-songwriter was always partial to a bit of the heavier stuff in the past and the independence that she has found performing as Bryde allowed her to return to these darker avenues. Like an Island, written during a break-up, was a particularly menacing journey! Two years on and The Volume of Things arrives amidst the discombobulation of a global pandemic and although clearly not a product of our new reality, the record is still a pertinent manifestation of 21st century anxieties. Instead of continuing down the brooding furrow ploughed by her debut though, The Volume of Things has a added some optimistic colour to the unease.
Opener ‘Silence’ is a wonderful example of this subtle shift towards a more sophisticated oeuvre. The jagged, discordant angles of the past appear to have been smoothed over and subtle synths and finespun harmonies also contribute to a softening of the tone. The real shift is in the sense of hope that is generated, both musically and lyrically. Although ‘The Trouble Is’ tackles the angst that may keep us awake at night, there’s something reassuringly familiar in its confessional approach. The college rock jangle this song adopts adds to this rapport and this musical style continues on the more tender ‘Done’ which appears to sumptuously evoke the torments of an introvert in incredibly allusive ways. So far then, this feels, dare I say it, more American, more Lucy Dacus perhaps, but definitely a hugely satisfying departure from the overt anger that permeated through Like an Island. ’80 Degrees’ perhaps acknowledges this departure; Howell’s has said of this little melodious gem, “It’s aimed at a partner I left behind,” she explains, “but since leaving that relationship and even since writing that song, there’s an old unwanted part of myself or my thinking that I’ve left behind too.”
Throughout these opening tracks Howell’s guitar has never sounded so lush, the melodies more catchy and her voice so mature. ‘Flies’ initially feels like a timely reminder of the more discordant moments on earlier records but even this quickly becomes a luxuriant concoction of textures demonstrating Howell’s ever increasing confidence in her own musical powers.
‘Hallelujah’s’ lacks these satisfying layers and ‘Paper Cups’ is a bit too reverential of that American college rock sound that permeates through this record, a bit too Jane Wiedlin perhaps, but who am I to knock ‘Rush Hour’! The haunting ‘Another Word for Free’ returns us to more familiar ground and this is reinforced by the fuzzy ‘Handing it Over’, once again providing something reassuringly familiar but uniquely presented in Bryde’s hands.
Ultimately, this record demonstrates a shift in tone, yes, but more significantly there is a sense that Sarah Howell’s confidence as a musician is beginning to soar. The analogue synths that pulse throughout ‘Outsiders’ don’t feel like a risk. They just fit perfectly around vocals that break your heart. Closing on the finger picking tenderness of the title track reminds us of Sarah’s range. This is an epic yet intimate, original yet deferential record that perfectly captures a moment in time. Sarah probably never imagined it would be quite the one we are living through right now.