Still on the Borderline: The haunting of Baby Rose

to myself

There are no clean getaways. Take it from soul singer Baby Rose, whose transfixing debut album, To Myself, documents relationships that have collapsed, but still exert their own inescapable gravity. Over and over, Rose pledges that she’s making a break, turning a corner, starting a new chapter; and over and over— in fits and starts, broken intentions and faltering relapses— she finds that it’s not so easy. “Maybe if I could just stop/ thinking of him I’ll be fine,” she speculates in “Borderline,” a conclusion that’s simple in theory but seemingly impossible in execution; like willing yourself not to think about a pink elephant. And in “Mortal,” a junkie’s confession set to a punishingly slow beat, she admits that she’ll “pick the pieces up then come running back every time,” all too ready to revisit the scene of her trauma. These are songs that posit love as a kind of ghost story, a haunting that outlasts physical embrace. In “Artifacts,” Rose is a lovestruck amnesiac, sifting through the ruins and relics of a failed relationship, trying to piece together how it all went wrong and allowing herself the hope that next time will be different. Perhaps the entire album is a set of artifacts; scattered memories reassembled into a dazed testimony of love’s capricious grip.

There’s another sense in which To Myself feels like a haunting: Shrouded in mossy atmospherics and submerged in deep shadow, the album is as murky and unsettled as a midnight seance, with Rose summoning to the table the rattling spirits of all the music that raised her— the church songs she grew up singing, the jazz and funk and hip-hop records she inherited from her parents. The production, mostly from Tim Maxley, is organic but not necessarily warm, earthy but also uneasy. It’s an analog sound built from humming keyboards, clattering percussion, and pulsing bass, its persistent dankness unifying all the ghosts Rose has conjured. Indeed, To Myself is a work of seamless synthesis, musical reference points channeled into something holistic and idiosyncratic: Just listen to the stalking R&B banger “Ragrets,” as crisp and propulsive as an Amy Winehouse song, as gnarled and wrinkly as a D’Angelo jam. “Artifacts” is even nastier, a racket of clamorous cymbals, multi-tracked voices, and speaker-rattling bass; George Clinton’s sludgy funk by way of Miles Davis’ 70s-era din. Far from being academic excursions into classicist song structures, these tracks are evocative and fully-embodied; listen again to “Mortal,” a slow-burning blues that dramatizes the agony of desire with bruising physicality. Or, to its tonal opposite, “In Your Arms,” which rides a trip-hop beat and gauzy synths into a weightless chorus, a dream of desire. Rose has obviously metabolized a lot of rap records (among her influences she cites Outkast and other southern eccentrics; she’s also worked with J Cole), and you can hear it in the easeful way she slips into clipped, percussive cadences: “When we were together/ I was like spouse/ right beside you/ playing house.” Her voice encompasses an entire vocabulary of rasps and moans, desirous coos and punchdrunk slurs; the quasi-title track “All To Myself” feels like the album’s beating heart precisely because it puts her weathered instrument at the center, accompanied by little more than piano and church organ.

Rose wrote the material on To Myself in the aftermath of a tumultuous breakup, one she says still holds her in its orbit; these 10 songs suggest someone who remains too deep in the shit to see the larger narrative, so instead she offers fragmented memories, conflicting emotions, shards of memoir and tatters of resolve. The album plays like an insomniac’s free-associative tailspin, veering sharply between anger and sorrow, an iron will to move forward and weak-kneed entreaties to go back to the way things here. “I’ll make it right until it all goes wrong,” she pledges on “Sold Out,” the spooky album opener; you can hear that same tension throughout the record, the push and pull between healthy intentions and inevitable self-destruction. Just because you’re through with love, these songs suggest, that doesn’t mean love’s through with you. It’s one of the oldest stories there is, but it’s also Baby Rose’s story. To Myself is a moody and masterful telling.