Album Review: Mae Powell – Both Ways Brighter

[Park The Van; 2021]

It’s fitting that the title to Mae Powell‘s debut album is a reference to the extended hours of sunlight at the start and end of the day during spring. Powell has a way of drawing in the warm evening glow of the sun on Both Ways Brighter, like she’s singing to defer the night itself. In her company, afternoons seem to linger that bit longer; on the hazy and lovingly leisured album highlight “Yellow Flower”, the relaxed, psychedelic guitars make it feel like you’re in a sleepy daze, basking in the hot midday sunshine.

And yet, despite how languid Powell (who was raised in San Diego and now resides in the Bay Area) might appear on surface, she takes on the world in a measured and sincere manner. Her single “Fuck I.C.E.” is quite clear in its message from the title alone, while on “We Are the Ones” she has a moment of enlightenment about her privilege while waiting for a tow truck to come pick her up; “Don’t you think it’s fucked I can feel safe in my car / While people are arrested for the colours that they are? / Don’t you think it’s fucked, don’t you think that it’s bizarre?”, she questions. It’s far from an original or hot take, but there’s still a certain refreshing charm to it. Powell is in her early 20s, and hearing her reckon with herself and the surrounding world out loud makes her seem all the more tangible as a human being; you could imagine hearing her saying this over a drink with you late one night.

And Powell loves to talk too, so much so it’s (unsurprisingly) the crux of “Let’s Talk”. Over relaxed guitar notes and acoustic strums, she urges us away from idle chit chat and to instead just “really, really just fuckin’ talk” with the sincerity of two old friends trying to catch up after a long time apart. Both Ways Brighter is out for these kinds of deep connections, finding them, and doing the work it takes to maintain them. On the tinny, chatty, keyboard-heavy “Catalyst” she ponders “How come it’s so much easier to say sorry to a stranger on the bus / Than it is to say sorry when I’m irrationally mad at you?” Elsewhere on the upbeat and joyfully catchy “Scratch n Sniff”, Powell longs for human touch with her partner while seeing them on screen and reading their letters; “Clinging to the thought of unattachment ’cause I know everything will change / But clinging to the thought is still clinging to something / The way that works is strange,” she observes.

This kind of youthful wisdom is peppered across the record; “It’s such a strange time, a strange time to be alive / But that’s just it / I am still alive,” she concludes on the brief “Let The Flowers Die”. There’s certainly a real-world cynicism present on the album (“Even though our country’s fucked and everything that’s published sucks”), but Powell doesn’t just roll over and pass it by. Matching the album’s 60s/70s mellow, acoustic, and occasionally psychedelic tone (as well as the typeface on the album art), the solution is simple: “We’re looking to change that with love.”

For some that might be a facetious solution, but Powell is not looking to start a revolution. Her protest songs might rally for change in a downtempo fashion, but the focus of the record seems more the equivalent of getting friends registered to vote than marching in the street. Maybe the hippie-like outlook and style might irk or irritate some past a point of enjoyment (there are certainly a few strands of fat that could have been trimmed from the tracklist), but the album is undeniably communal. (It also helps that Powell can weave a vocal hook with what seems like no trouble; the way she sings the titular words on “Yellow Flower” is positively infectious.) It’s friends gathered in a living room, relaxing, jamming, providing charming vocal accompaniments, and playing with no real stakes (just check out the festive ramble of “Outro”). Both Ways Brighter is sunshine, and there’s always room for a little more of that, no matter what end of the day you’re at.