Heartache and triumph flow through Nicole Atkins’s Goodnight Rhonda Lee. The songs on the signer-songwriter’s fourth album testify to lessons learned the hard way, bitter endings leading to new beginnings, and joy won through struggle. Atkins has always been a technically gifted vocalist stranded in generic pop-rock, but here she cuts loose with the power, range, and soul-baring intensity she’s only hinted at before. Kicking booze just in time to learn that her father had lung cancer in the months leading up to the album’s creation, Atkins has reemerged emboldened and confident. She sounds overjoyed by the very act of singing here, and one can’t help but wonder if it’s because she wasn’t sure she’d ever do it again.
The album’s opener, “A Little Crazy,” sets the tone, revealing a dramatic change in Atkins’s sound: It’s a soaring, operatic pop ballad in the vein of Roy Orbison, with the kind of big, brassy chorus that lets Atkins show off her vocal prowess. She overwhelms even the lush string arrangement, but the song isn’t just a showcase for virtuosity. The opening line, “Walking/I spend a lot of time walking/That’s what people do/Getting over you,” drips with the sadness and self-loathing you’d expect from a Burt Bacharach song, and by the time the chorus rolls around, Atkins is begging, pleading, apologizing for her tears. Her voice quivers like she’s barely holding herself together.
The rest of Goodnight Rhonda Lee is similarly rooted in classic pop, but it never sounds self-consciously retro. The performances all crackle with energy and grit. Atkins recorded the whole thing live with Leon Bridges’s backup band, and they bring muscle to the strutting, finger-popping anthem “Darkness Falls So Quiet.” On “Listen Up,” the band creates a shimmering groove out of little more than hi-hat and tambourine; it’s a soul song with an old-school aesthetic but a visceral energy, and its conceit—about paying attention to the lessons life tries to teach you—flips the album’s melancholic tone into something more positive and constructive.
“If I Could” reflects on the futility of trying to outrun one’s past, while the torch song “A Night of Serious Drinking” is tangled with regret. But if the album feels pained, it doesn’t ever feel joyless. Indeed, there’s too much color in the production, too much vigor in the performances, for it to ever feel morose. “Sleepwalking” is an anthem of emotional numbness set to a bouncy Motown beat, complete with full brass accompaniment, while “A Night of Serious Drinking” is just as vivid, with cocktail-hour piano gradually building into weepy pedal steel and a woozy string arrangement.
Everything on Goodnight Rhonda Lee is immediate. Throughout, Atkins’s lyrics eschew metaphor in favor of a more confessional mode, and her arrangements are punchy and direct. She also revels equally in her high notes and in her little cracks and imperfections. At no point is there any doubt that this is the album she’s always wanted to make.