On her debut album, the Toronto singer-songwriter and producer draws variously from gospel, folk, and adult-contemporary influences; no matter the style, every song is a showcase for her powerful voice.
Light has always been a precious resource in Charlotte Day Wilson’s music. The Toronto singer-songwriter and producer’s vast voice is like a canyon that the sun can’t access; the percolating soul and quiet storm that surround it flicker like candlelight. “I went to a funeral today just so I could feel something,” she sang on “Funeral,” from her 2018 EP Stone Woman. It’s a particularly bitter line in a catalog that has often traced life’s hard edges.
Her debut album, Alpha, is an escape from the twilight. Darkness once consumed Day Wilson, seeping down into the bottom of her lungs. Now, she’s preoccupied with luster and scope. Her voice—and what a voice, deep and passionate, cast in the mold of Anita Baker—feels less crepuscular, less intimate, and more capable of levitating cars and uprooting whole forests.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Mountains,” a stirring gospel number featuring full-throated choral chants, handclaps and foot stomps, and the sound of rain in the background. Day Wilson, raring to add to the sense of grandeur, describes scaling peaks and searching valleys. Yet the lyrics scan as insular and personal, like a classic break-up song. “Mountains” is co-written by one of the kings of the form, Babyface, and gives Day Wilson license to curse her broken heart and even call on the spirit of Travis’ mopey classic: “And when it rains only rains on me.” The teetering-on-the-brink drama is ratcheted up to incredible levels. Day Wilson is the kind of performer who can pull off approaching every one of her hurt feelings like it’s worthy of an Iliad.
A sense of spiritual power defines much of Alpha. The background vocals on “Strangers” are immediately reminiscent of the haunting yet angelic Auto-Tuned voice Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon deploys. “If I Could” is just one song that leans on religious imagery: “I’d bathe you/Wash you of the sins that plague you/Rid you of the burdens, and you’d be free once more,” Day Wilson sings. The body of the artist with the bourbon-soaked lounge-singer shimmer now sounds inhabited by the spirit of a transcendent preacher. This is music for baptizing groups of worshippers in rivers. Yet Day Wilson funnels the evangelism into a focus on the self, always looking inward.
There are more mellow moments to balance the weight. “Keep Moving” is the kind of adult-contemporary song that would have lit up Reagan-era radio: muted drum pads, spacey keyboards, chugging guitars. “Take Care of You,” guest starring Syd, could pass for a Destiny’s Child deep cut. Unsurprisingly, the most traditional soul joint is the team-up with Day Wilson’s occasional collaborators BADBADNOTGOOD: “I Can Only Whisper” features the band’s stoned and surly late-night grooves. There’s more folk-influenced fare, too: On “Lovesick Utopia” and “Adam Complex,” Day Wilson sings over acoustic guitars and other mild orchestral flourishes. Her power isn’t particularly suited to light fingerpicking, but neither are unwelcome to the ear.
It’s been five years since Day Wilson embarked on a solo career after the dissolution of her band the Wayo, but this is her first album, and she uses the space to cover plenty of stylistic bases. It all comes together in a varied and well-sequenced record. But wherever you dip in, you’ll land on her voice—the kind of instrument that stressed-out commuters can reach for to help ease their anxiety in traffic. It would be simple for Day Wilson to cut an album of Stax-style soul tunes or smooth jazz standards and call it a day. The immaculately mixed Alpha is instead built on weighty writing and daring arrangements in which Day Wilson stays front and center, never allowing the production to overshadow her presence.