Playing the Part of You Is Me—the new album from Nashville songwriter Savannah Conley—is a stirring distillation of the pleasures and problems of growing up. It brims with the keen insights and bold choices of someone already buoyed and empowered by, say, a decade of success. Love and doubt, grief and hope are all here, coiled into anthems for a new generation facing such feelings. But Playing the Part of You Is Me is actually Conley’s debut, an intimate and instantly endearing introduction to a young singer already channeling so much experience.
Indeed, while Playing the Part of You Is Me is Conley’s debut, it’s not the first album she’s ever made. When Conley was still a teenage punk, rebelling against the country mores of the Music City hometown she loved nevertheless, she actually inked a deal with a major label that seemed hellbent on making her some Americana star. She bristled, just as she insisted she would, bucking against the conventions of the Nashville machine while making two records that remain even now unreleased. After two years (and what seemed like a lifetime) of unsatisfying effort, Conley finally left the label in January 2020. She reckoned that, at least for a while, she was finished with music.
Just then, of course, the world seemed to wobble on its axis for the next two years. Songs suddenly poured out of Conley, not only as she squared up to the scars left behind by her industry straits but also as she fell deeply into pandemic love. Demos ballooned, as did ideas for how to turn them into an album that made her proud, to incorporate the sounds of post-millennial indie rock and the words of sharp songwriters that inspired her. The arcing electronics and transcendent release of “Muscle Memory,” the gothic might and cascading distortion of “To My Innocence,” the mercurial strings of “I Love You”: Playing the Part of You Is Me is a perfect synthesis of Conley’s hardest experiences and highest enthusiasms, unleashed at last from expectations. Despite the past label saga, or maybe because of it, this is a debut that feels not overdue but instead right on time.
That early 2020 scare, when Conley thought she might just be done with songs, was not the first time she had almost abandoned her earliest artistic impulse. Conley began writing her own tunes when she was three (“Born in a Mouse,” mind you, being the first); later, as a kid yet unable to play an instrument, she would sample the sounds of her father, a hotshot touring guitarist, and sing above them. That passion eventually curdled in a familiar teenage way; because both of her parents were part of Nashville’s country superstructure, she half-rebelled by trying not to become a musician. It could never last, however, since Conley had forever been the person singing her feelings into cell phone voice notes in the shapes of melodies. “I felt like I had to do it,” she admits with a laugh, “or I would explode.”
This intense expressive dependence animates Playing the Part of You Is Me, the unspoken motivation inside songs that ring so emotionally true they may feel like scenes swiped from your own life, as the title aptly suggests. The core of these 11 numbers is new love and what it looks like when it starts to turn old. Conley flirts with someone for the first time on “More Than Fine,” an endlessly alluring electropop come-on. She also wonders what’s the worst that could happen if they hooked up again, post-breakup, on the icy “Muscle Memory,” which winks at Drake’s “Passionfruit” as she winks at that old flame from across the bar.
There is the recognizable and perfectly stated self-doubt of imposter syndrome—will I ever be good enough for this person?—during the taut “Contortionist,” then a confrontation with romantic complacency on the wry “I Can See the Future.” Her Nashville pedigree takes a brief bow during songs like “Don’t Make Me Reach,” a spectral ballad about trying and failing to repair a long-distance breach. “Makes me want to start some shit just for the hell of it/Throw knives until they stick,” she patiently murmurs, her turnaround so barbed it would make a young Music Row writer blush.
Playing the Part of You Is Me isn’t, however, just about love. Conley grapples with depression’s lingering miasma on the staggering “Past Life,” her voice cracking with the exquisite tenderness of, say, Minnie Riperton and the resolve of Angel Olsen. “To My Innocence” is a rock ’n’ roll gut punch, the turbocharged tirade of a Southerner who has grown to realize that the social values of her surroundings were often bankrupt. “We don’t want the same thing,” she sneers, cavorting somewhere between Sharon Van Etten and Dehd. “We want something new.”
These songs feel like testaments from and directions to a new Nashville. Conley harnesses the incisiveness of Alvvays, the skywriting vulnerability of Death Cab for Cutie, and the tuneful charm of Lorde at once. Sure, there are bits of what you could call Americana here—candor, grace, detail. But these 11 pieces are all jolting reminders that those traits aren’t isolated to a form or term; they are simply marks of great songs, songs like these.
“If you left me tomorrow, I would still be sure that this was important,” Conley sings in the final verse of “I Love You.” Her resolve with the line is astonishing, especially given the context. She wrote the song in the wondrous throes of new love but only recorded it on the very day that relationship ended. Looking back on those early records she made but never released, Conley thinks maybe she didn’t have much to say yet, enough experience to make a compelling statement. Her growth and wisdom are written into every second of Playing the Part of You Is Me, the poetic Bildungsroman of a songwriter born with an instinct for melody but who had to live enough to give that gift weight. In that, at last, her triumphant debut never falters.For tour dates and more visit: www.savannahconley.com/