Album Of The Week: Sudan Archives Athena
There’s a funny thing that can happen with an artist like Sudan Archives. When Brittney Parks’ project first started to garner buzz, it was for an idiosyncratic, specific style she had already figured out — electronic production, R&B melodies, and an ever-present violin primarily influenced by different West African fiddling traditions. It wasn’t quite like anything else. And that kind of becomes the main talking point; many discussions of her music are reduced to just outlining her fresh and exciting sound.
So after Parks had already crystallized this sound across two EPs — Sudan Archives in 2017 and Sink last year — it was easy to wonder how something with so much possibility yet that was also so well-defined already could be expanded over the course of a full album. Would her calling cards grow old? Would they blossom and evolve in ways we couldn’t foresee? The answer’s arrived now with Athena, a full-length debut that both refines Sudan Archives’ unique aesthetic and adds subtle modulations to the formula.
Like many debut albums, Athena is a personal story leading up to this moment, an origin story and memoir. It begins small, with “Did You Know?” — a song Parks wrote with her twin sister when they were teenagers. (Before a familial falling out precipitated her move to LA, Parks’ stepfather had tried to shepherd her and her sister into a teen pop duo.) It’s a more tentative intro to the album, her violin muted and strummed, her vocals delivered with the next-to-you intimacy and raw conversationalist tone of a demo. “When I was a little girl, I thought I could rule the world,” she sings, giving us the opening scene. Then the sound grows and blooms, setting the stage for the album to come. Like all good myth-making, it’s like a new world opening up.
Apparently Parks always had a will for self-creation. As a child, she saw an Irish folk band perform in her hometown and fell in love with the violin. She convinced her mother to acquire one, and she set about teaching herself how to be a musician, first by playing violin in church choirs and later learning how to craft beats via Apple software. Along the way, she would discover different African fiddlers who also provided major inspiration. While the early execution of Sudan Archives’ style on the EPs communicated an inherent confidence, the first thing that’s noticeable about Athena is all of this coming together after years of experimentation and curiosity. There’s a boldness and vibrancy in Parks getting to explore this sound and her life over the course of a full-length statement.
A major distinction from her earlier work is the surprising directness to Athena. There had been plenty of earworm singles in Sudan Archives’ early days, from “Come Meh Way” off the first EP to “Nont For Sale” off Sink. In a recent interview with The Line Of Best Fit, Parks characterized the EPs as “a haiku of what the album is.” A fuller realization of hints dropped before, Athena doesn’t abandon the building blocks of Sudan Archives but moves in an ever so slightly poppier direction.
A lot of these songs have hooks. Lead single “Confessions” immediately became one of the catchiest compositions to Sudan Archives’ name, and it’s not alone on the rest of Athena. The swooning-then-heartbroken shapes of “Down On Me” come to mind. So does “Limitless,” which pairs a soothing balm of a melody with words mulling over the distraction and disorientation of digital life while still nodding to its titular boundlessness. “Iceland Moss” alone has multiple passages that easily get lodged in your head, from its wispy daydream verse to Parks’ quickened and percussive sing-speak to an airy chorus.
Though there are plenty of memorable choruses littered throughout the album, Parks is not exactly an R&B belter. She sings in coos and meditations, incantations of the past and future at once. In many cases, the biggest, most infectious part of the song is her violin as much as her voice, if not more so. The catchiness of “Confessions” is primarily due to how Parks’ voice and strings interact on the chorus, like two currents swirling together. In other places, like the slashing jig of “Glorious,” her instrument steals the show.
There are still more suggestive tracks here, with interstitials spread throughout the album almost as segues between different passages in which Parks stretches her songwriting into varying forms. A spacier middle section is bookended by the ambient swell of “Ballet Of The Unhatched Twins I” and the burbling violins in “House Of Open Tuning II.” Later, the trip-hop interlude “Stuck” sets the stage for Athena’s more nocturnal, woozier final act.
When she was introducing Sink last year, Parks turned to natural imagery to describe her music, saying the songs on the EP were influenced by her “love of fluidity, movement of jellyfish and water.” Athena is also elemental. Parks’ voice winds like wind through trees, then slithers like meandering tendrils of smoke. Her violin remains aqueous, but on occasion ignites — these songs will weave their way into your mind, but with the same elusive rhythms of a trickling river or dancing flames. This often results in material that can be strikingly beautiful, like when the hazy and humid closer “Pelicans In The Summer” briefly builds to a climax that sounds like a sunset in a distant land, or when the little synths of “Limitless” drift up like gentle embers.
If there’s a thesis you could read into the project, it’s bringing together distant histories. There is, particularly and obviously, a move towards stitching together cultural heritages across an ocean through the blend of contemporary black American music and ancestral African traditions. The album takes its name from a Greek goddess depicted as white, with Parks reimagining her as a black deity, one she could claim as her own. Parks’ real-life story begins in Cincinnati and comes to fruition in Los Angeles, while other scenes evoke locales as far-flung as Iceland. The string figure of “Glorious” moves Ireland under a desert sun and then makes room for a rap verse from Parks’ fellow Ohio native D-Eight. The cumulative effect of this is places and people and time periods collapsing together, a broad impressionistic tapestry that signifies one person’s becoming, one artist’s birth.
Song to song, the narratives can zoom in to more daily or run-of-the-mill experiences, this time tracing the distances that develop between people one on one. Several of the songs address relationships and how we form our identities within them. This might be Parks speaking of her own trials (one doomed romance in “Down On Me,” the departure from home and family in “Confessions”) or engaging with the struggles of those close to her (a friend’s ex appearing in the voicemail of “Coming Up,” bonding with friends and transcending together on “Limitless”). But at the same time, the album wasn’t born from that kind of isolation, drifting apart from people in your life, so much as it was a new community — the once-insular Parks now welcoming new collaborators and producers, opening herself up to the chance that new exchanges could transform her music in ways she couldn’t even predict.
The title Athena carries weight for a lot of reasons. It’s not just a mythological figure to chase, as a person creates a new version of themselves. Athena, like other pivotal figures in some legends, is a character of almost direct contradictions, whether in being both a villain and a hero or in the different concepts she represents as a goddess. That was what drew Parks to that iconography: Her album is one of musical corners that don’t always intersect otherwise, lives broken down and lives starting anew, songs that can resonate but remain enigmatic, people disappearing from your life to be replaced by new ones.
In that same interview, Parks says the album concludes with “a sense of oneness.” In the end, all of those songs come together, a person carries all those battles and memories with them, and they imagine a new self out of them. It turns out those early EPs, the ones where we thought we already knew Sudan Archives, were just one beginning. Athena is a different one. It’s a document of transformation, one that is often gorgeous and multi-faceted. And once more, it can leave you wondering about all the transformations yet to come.
Athena is out 11/1 via Stone’s Throw. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Miranda Lambert’s brighter The Weight Of These Wings follow-up, Wildcard.
• Jeff Goldblum’s instant-classic duets collection I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This.
• Gang Starr’s first album since Guru’s death, One Of The Best Yet.
• Turnover’s continued venture into vibier, smoother territory, Altogether.
• Counterparts’ vicious-then-soaring Nothing Left To Love.
• Wished Bone’s airy and pastoral Sap Season.
• Itasca’s folky, Southwest-inspired Spring.
• Kele’s latest solo offering, 2042.
• CUP’s experimental pop debut Spinning Creature.
• Jeff Lynne’s ELO’s new latter-day collection From Out Of Nowhere.
• Omni’s nervy Sub Pop debut Networker.
• Cold War Kids’ new one New Age Norms 1.
• Sean Henry autumnal-then-scuzzy A Jump From The High Dive.
• MØ and Walshy Fire’s Walshy Fire Presents: MMMMØ – The Mix.
• Rata Negra’s La Hija Del Sepulturero EP.
• The Spielbergs’ Running All The Way Home EP.
• Fauness’ Lashes In A Landfill EP
• R.E.M.’s Monster deluxe reissue with unreleased demos and other extras.
• Bob Dylan’s archival Johnny Cash team-up Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15.