On her promising debut EP, the New York singer-songwriter searches for ideal settings for her stunning, intimate voice.
Zsela Thompson’s rich, strange voice first appeared in February 2019 with her debut single “Noise.” There was something haunting about the song’s fluid, hymn-like motion, the way Thompson’s vocals evoked Sade. When the native New Yorker released her second single, “Earlier Days,” eight months later, I felt similarly to one of the commenters on YouTube: “HOW CAN I LISTEN TO MORE OF HER MUSIC, HELP.”
Her five-song EP Ache of Victory arrives after years of teasing. Although it’s her first official release, it comes with an intimidating pedigree. Thompson is the daughter of Marc Anthony Johnson, the neo-soul artist Chocolate Genius, and though her music has traces of her father’s sound, she also fits in with the modern R&B cohort. She’s a scene staple, playing local haunts like Joe’s Pub and Baby’s All Right as well as more rarefied gigs: She covered Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at MoMA PS1 for the fashion label Vaquera, performing at NYFW for Collina Strada, and at the Whitney for the Wide Rainbow gala. Her producer on Ache of Victory is Daniel Aged, one half of the duo inc., who’ve worked with FKA twigs, Kelela, and, most recently, Frank Ocean. Later this year, pandemic permitting, she’ll tour with Cat Power and Angel Olsen.
Judging by this EP, she belongs to her generation’s modern R&B cohort, marrying the bedroom-pop idiosyncrasy of Okay Kaya with the intimacy of Moses Sumney. In the opener, a synth-backed piano ballad called “Drinking,” the singer admits that she’s been “drinking again,” perhaps a nod to the bluesy sentimental standard of the same name. Alternating between the melancholy and maniacal euphoria that comes with ruining your own life, the song charts the ambivalence of falling off the wagon. Zsela’s voice vacillates between sulking and sprightly: “I’ve been drinking again/I’ve been losing all my friends.” The lines are sung from the bottom of a bottle, then from on high in an angelic chorus, then from back down again, before the song ends abruptly mid-sentence, jolting the listener from their vicariously drunken stupor.
The strongest songs here remain the singles. “Earlier Days” shows Zsela singing breathlessly over gauzy ambient synths punctuated by laid back percussion. On “For Now,” Zsela is backed by synth arpeggios and slow-rolling drums. Her vocal range is astonishing; on the chorus, her voice dives to a bellow, then climbs into a weightless falsetto. When the drums are pared down, her layered vocals produce a stunning, Enya-like choral effect.
The album’s last two songs, though they use similar stylistic quirks, do so with less precision. “Liza,” a torch song backed by a lovely undulating synth, offers little lyrical complexity compared to the rest of the album, and relies a bit too heavily on Zsela’s peculiar voice and vocal layering to carry it. Like “Drinking,” it ends abruptly, but rather than adding to the dizzying quality, it just sounds like someone’s pulled the plug. “Undone,” the album’s most stripped-down song, feels like a return to the piercing simplicity of “Noise,” but it’s so short that it feels unfinished.
Perhaps the first cut is the deepest. Where singles like “Noise” reveal a distinct sound, the other material succumbs to generic, murmured any-R&B—imagine Rhye, the xx, and Aged’s project inc., all blended into autoplay monolith. But Zsela is too interesting to become a casualty of the “beats to chill/study to” playlist, and there are plenty of signs on this short, promising project that her formidable voice will enter the pantheon of greats in a matter of albums.