The title of Esther Rose’s third album, How Many Times, is expanded on in the first song; “How many times will you break my heart?” she asks in the chorus. Perhaps this full line was too transparent to be the album title; perhaps Rose didn’t want to advertise it as just another breakup country record. In every way though, that’s what How Many Times is: another record about lost love. Yet, what saves Rose’s version from sinking into tired banality is the earnestness of it all: she displays the full gamut of her emotions in the songs, from longing to anger, yearning to acceptance.
As if to emphasise a sense of change, the New Orleans-based singer-songwriter has updated her alt-country sound, if only slightly. Some tracks, like “Coyote Creek” and “Mountaintop”, have a folk rock kick and stomp to them; subtle harmonies flutter gently in others like “My Bad Mood”. The lap steel guitar, upright bass, and fiddle usually dominate though, Rose knowing when to contain (“Songs Remain”) or unleash (the foot-tapping “Mountaintop”). The songs are prettily constructed, Rose’s innate knowledge of alt-country evident. The 10 tracks are almost different versions of each other, but this isn’t necessarily a limitation when any one is so strong.
The lyrics are lacerating in their honesty; Rose’s words are wrought with sincerity and truth. On “My Bad Mood” (whose title sounds like a dire episode of Scrubs), she watches her ex dancing with a girl with “a fancy twirl,” the barnstorming country melody capturing the feeling of wanting to dance in a bar with someone but watching them do it with someone else. “Keeps Me Running” is about the cathartic release of burning old love letters. The stop-start “Are You Out There” is about being home alone on New Year’s Eve, its chorus soaring high, expressing the deep longing that overwhelms Rose.
There is no malice in the breakup’s aftermath, no attempt to crucify her ex. Consider the aching “Songs Remain”: “To know you is to be forever changed / I am glad it was you who broke my heart,” she decides, and it’s a tender and relatable reckoning with a past relationship. Rose also knows to maintain humour in despair; “I think I might just let you go,” she scoffs on “When You Go”, before immediately backtracking by asking, “But can I come with you?” – the rhythm of the song matches her sly wink with a knowing shuffle. The most upbeat country track is left until last; the sprightly “Without You” is the only time Rose sinks to use clichés: “Like a song without a name”; “Like a lock without a key”; and “Like a queen without a king” are just some of the sardonic examples, the songwriter again finding the humour in sadness.
“I know I cannot remain without you” is the last line of the entire record. Perhaps this is another wry aside or perhaps she really does mean it; anyone who has discovered heartbreak knows that there is very little between these two sentiments. When so many breakup albums can feel forced or spiteful – whether due to a desire to boost album sales or because it was written too soon after the dissolution of the relationship – the realness of Rose’s How Many Times is resounding. There is empathy and humour in her reflections, there is pathos and goodwill. Heading onto her fourth album, Rose has established herself as one of the most reliably proficient singer-songwriters in country music.