There were reasons to be optimistic about the 1990s revival. The decade saw, for the first and perhaps last time, the blurring of the line between the underground and the mainstream in pop music; introspective singer-songwriters, indie bands, socially conscious rappers, even brooding trip-hop artists from across the pond comingled amicably on the charts. But ’90s nostalgia has, to this point, mostly consisted of the resurrection of questionable fashion (scrunchies, mom jeans) and TV (Will and Grace, Roseanne).
British singer-songwriter Bishop Briggs’s “River,” however, is the kind of song you might have heard sandwiched between Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and the Spice Girls’s “Wannabe” on the radio in the late ’90s. The track’s mix of blues-rock and more contemporary elements—like handclaps that morph into trap snares—feels like a throwback to the alternative-pop bands that infiltrated Top 40 stations just before the turn of the century. And Briggs’s debut, Church of Scars, delivers in kind, with a series of gothic-soul dirges and blues-inflected pop.
The looped refrain on “River” sounds like it was lifted from Adele’s 25, an album that could have, in turn, used some of Briggs’s trip-hop edge. Church of Scars harnesses the soulful blues-pop that Adele has so deftly deployed on hits like “Rolling in the Deep.” Standouts “Wild Horses” and “Hallowed Ground” are defined by canned horns and reverb-drenched vocals, while the classic R&B tropes of “Lyin’” and “Hi-Lo (Hollow)” are juxtaposed by pitched-down and diced-up vocals, respectively.
Spread across 10 tracks, though, Briggs’s formula ultimately reveals itself to be one-note. The incessant box-stomping and earnest belting on “Dream” obliterates the subtlety of the song’s pensive acoustic guitar strains and gospel humming. For all its sermonizing and church-y fundamentals, the album is largely joyless. “Why can’t I let my demons lie?/Keep screaming into the pillow,” Briggs laments on “Wild Horses.” When, two-thirds of the way through Church of Scars, the singer cynically bemoans that “there’s more pain in love than we can find in hate,” her dour disposition has grown exhausting.