Album Review: Orla Gartland – Woman On The Internet

[New Friends Music; 2021]

Woman On The Internet is a coming-of-age record, the culmination of a decade of work for Ireland-born, London-residing musician Orla Gartland. Turned away from the age-restricted open-mic nights in the bars of her home country, she found a space online instead. There she uploaded acoustic covers and eventually her own music, a generational and performative action for someone who slips between the Millennial and Gen X label. When the outside world doesn’t yet have a space for you, the virtual world will always welcome you. (And welcome her it most definitely did; her YouTube channel currently boasts over 23 million views.)

Despite its name, Woman On The Internet doesn’t reckon specifically with the state of being female in an online world as much as might be expected. (The album’s titular individual is “an elusive character, like a modern day wizard-of-oz” whom Gartland turns to for advice when feeling isolated or directionless.) Instead, Gartland’s focus is to wider life: anxiety, jealousy, trauma, and the general emotional turbulence that comes with living. On “Zombie!” she tackles the destructive and cyclical pattern of toxic masculinity, while on “More Like You” Gartland puts those she envies on a pedestal, envying the apparent ease at which they go about life. Her sentiments might be far-reaching most of the time, but it makes them no less valuable or engaging. With an outlook that balances informal wryness and everyday sincerity, Gartland has a way of eliciting emotional responses to her music without ever feeling calculated.

What helps is that quite often the songs on her album are tremendous fun to get embroiled in. The vibrant “You’re Not Special, Babe” is infectious, flitting between loud and quiet dynamics, all while managing to turn a line like “‘Cause you’re not special, babe / I know you feel like your life is one big mistake” into a sympathetic sentiment of reassurance that we’re all fighting similar battles. “Codependency” dishes out blasts of guitar amidst a subtly swinging rhythm, while the aforementioned “Zombie!” conjures up sounds of early 2000s alt-rock pop, Gartland sounding that bit breathless like the song itself is getting away from her.

The joy of these tracks comes as much from Gartland’s songwriting as it does from the care put into the record’s sound. Co-producing, Gartland has a way of keeping herself front and centre but also making it sound like she’s just out of reach; there’s something about her music here that makes you feel like you’re just off deciphering it fully. That may be frustrating for some listeners, but it can also help you narrow in on smaller details, be it the layered auto-tuned backing vocals on “You’re Not Special, Babe” or the textured percussion tracks on the downbeat piano-led “Do You Mind?”. The care and attention to detail is warmly present throughout, and it elevates Woman On The Internet that bit above other albums working in the same territory.

Once or twice the album stumbles, but never in any kind of derailing way. “Left Behind” is a sweet and sincere ballad, but it doesn’t hold much depth to explore with repeated listens and dampens the pace of the album’s final run. The opening track “Things That I’ve Learned” goes for a Fiona Apple-like threading of wordplay, percussive polyrhythms, and piano riffs, and while it’s not without a few quotable lines (“Take up all the space even when you think you don’t deserve it… It’s okay to feel everything that you feel all of a sudden”), it hits just short of the high it reaches for. With a bit more time to percolate and unfurl the effect would have made for a beginning that would have exploded instead of just popping like bubblewrap.

Immersed in the album though, these moments are easy to forgive. When Woman On the Internet isn’t fun, bold, or thoughtful (or all three at once in some parts), it’s reflective. While Gartland might spend the majority of the album tackling what sounds like the here and now of life in your mid 20s, at the very end she traces her mentality and trauma back to its familial roots. On final track “Bloodline / Difficult Things” she reveals “I always feel like I’m the bad guy / ‘Cause I’m thе one that upped and left,” worrying about her connection to her parents. Come the song’s latter half she lays it out in the open: “I don’t wanna run away / But you, you don’t get me / I, I keep it all in / ‘Cause we never talk about difficult things.” It’s perhaps the most revealing moment of the record (complete with what sound like old home videos playing in the background). It’s growth and self-actualization. It’s why Woman On the Internet is a coming-of-age record, through and through.