Samia – Honey [Review]

There’s an unstable edge to Samia Finnerty’s voice. When she sings softly, she’ll often end phrases with soft vibrato, so shivery that her words seem to recede into her throat; when she sings loudly, at the top of her range, her voice catches on vowels and comes out like a scream. On “Mad At Me,” the second single from her new album Honey, you can hear both of these effects at work. When she sings the chorus – “Are you still / Mad at me?” – her voice shudders and slips into the arpeggiated synths. But when she tries to let go of the question, she blasts right through the track, doubled and insistent and sharp: “I don’t wanna know, I don’t / I don’t wanna know anymore.” 

That sharpness was present on her debut album, 2020’s excellent The Baby, albeit in a more direct way. That record’s arrangements tended towards folky acoustics and chugging indie rock, which allowed her vocal performances to take center stage. She’d sometimes chew the scenery a bit, but she knew it; it was part of the album’s charm. She documented the messier ends of young adulthood, in which over-the-top dramatics can lend significance and meaning to humiliating experiences. When she howled about giving up her prized stuffed pig on that album’s closer, her voice’s heart-stopping power belied the song’s dismally conventional narrative about falling in one-sided love with, god forbid, an actor.

Honey, though, feels more measured. There are more effects applied to her voice – the multitracking on “Mad At Me,” the autotune on “Breathing Song,” the compression that turns her into an instrument on “Amelia” and “Sea Lions” – which implies a more adult distance between her and her songs. This distance is compounded by her songwriting, which feels more sentimental and less caustic than before. The Baby leaned hard on self-deprecating humor to gesture towards the immediate what-the-fuck-just-happened emotional processing of one’s early 20s; but while Honey isn’t above the occasional one-liner, it approaches similar subject matter with a greater sense of weight.

Another part of this tonal shift is in the album’s production, which alternates between minimalistic ballads, strummy folk, and surreal electronic flourishes. This broader stylistic palette can lead to some whiplash-inducing transitions, making for a slightly unbalanced listen. On the wistful “Pink Balloon,” Samia floats prettily on a bed of soft piano, singing of regret and heartbreak with such close-mic’d intimacy you can practically hear her swallow between lines. Then “Mad At Me” kicks into gear, replacing all of that gentleness with spiky, trebly id. It’s as if she can’t decide how to feel about any particular event, instead choosing to explore every corner of every possible interpretation.

These sudden swings in mood permeate the first half of the record, culminating in “Sea Lions,” on which Samia builds a vibe shift directly into the song structure. The song opens with a bitterly funny image – “Screaming ‘porn kills love’ / Outside your window with the Adventists” – and proceeds to sketch a portrait of a disintegrating relationship, one in which she has to minimize herself in order to keep the connection alive. A mournful organ plays soft, droning chords in the background. Then, halfway through, a distorted voice asks, “Why is your phone going to voicemail?,” and the song swerves into skittering, wordless electropop. It ends with a litany of free-associated words and phrases: “Broken promises / Liposuction / Cosmetic surgery / Entropy / Delta S / Pressure / Build up / Increase / Decrease / In, on, off, switch.” It’s the record’s instability, its unexpected and jarring shifts in tone and mood, compressed into one song.

But while “Sea Lions” epitomizes Honey’s sonic flourishes, “Breathing Song” serves as its beating, bloody heart. Its minimal soundscape pairs slowly blooming synth pads with twinkling, crystalline piano and subterranean bass. Samia’s voice is autotuned to unsettling perfection; when she sings the line “You asked if I was crying,” the vocal processing springs the word “asked” an octave up the scale. The processing enforces the cold structure of a melody onto her lyrics.

Those lyrics unfold patiently and clearly. At first, it isn’t clear what the song is about. She sings a line about being carried up a set of stairs with dangling “Raggedy-Ann legs,” a line about bleeding at a bar and being rushed to the hospital, a line about someone else’s logic being so big she can’t fight against it. All throughout, a refrain of “no, no, no” glides past after each verse. At the end of the song, she tips her hand, recounting a story of experiencing a panic attack while trying to tell someone about what’s happened. She does a breathing exercise – “Four in, six out” – and then lands on a question: “Samia, why would it / Matter what happened / After you said / No, no, no?” When she hits the last “no,” she screams it so loud and long it feels like her voice might break the song entirely. I can’t speak for everyone, but I imagine it’s a question that most survivors of sexual assault have asked themselves at one point or another.

“Breathing Song” recasts Honey’s mood shifts as, themselves, part of a broader thematic purpose. The album uses juxtaposition to explore what suffering and trauma can do to a person: how they can drive you to extremes in order to cope with what you’ve experienced, how they can make it difficult to settle on a fixed identity or perspective, and how they can make life nearly unbearable. She mentions death – desiring it, feeling its presence, coping with it – on over half of the songs. 

But it’s not a miserable record. “Mad At Me” and the title track are bright, singalong bangers, while album cuts like “To Me It Was” and “Nanana” have a swaying gentleness that cuts against the record’s heavier themes. But the most joyful moment comes on “Amelia,” Honey’s penultimate song. Its chiming synth riff feels like a burst of sunlight, while its driving, bit-crushed drums bring a sense of pulse-pounding abandon. Against this glorious chaos, Samia’s softer vocal threatens to dissipate. But for the chorus, she’s mixed right up front so you can’t miss her words, a balm against the confusing and painful extremes of life: “Huh / Delight / To live another night.

Stream Honey on your platform of choice. Check out her website for upcoming tour dates. You can also follow Samia on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. Header 📷: Sophia Matinazad

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