There is no doubt Sarah Slean is an accomplished singer, songwriter and all-around musician. But there is something holding her back from being great. It’s not her voice, which is strong and emotive. It’s not her musical skill, which she demonstrates at the piano. It is the absence of a certain amount of subtlety and mystery. The Toronto-based singer seems to want to lay everything out before you on her most recent album, The Baroness. She clearly has a penchant for drama and poetry, which is fine and good, but it often comes off as over-thought and overwrought.
Then again, when you consider that the 30-year-old wrote a good deal of the songs on this album — her fifth — while living in Paris and that she is now studying philosophy and music at the University of Toronto, the reasons for the romance and drama become clearer.
There’s a Victorian feel to the lyrics and a theatrical feel to the building and crashing music. Slean would benefit, perhaps, from some more modernity. Take, for example, the lyrics to Please Be Good to Me, where Slean sings: “I carried my heart unbuttoned across the lonely stage where all the fools and actors circle like birds of prey.”
I can’t help but picture the heartache and drama of a story like Wuthering Heights when I listen to this album. Images of torn gowns, unkempt curls and bleak winter gardens come to mind. Such influences could make for gorgeous music, but Slean overdoes it. The songs all blend together. They all sound similar — a bit like they were written for some romantic, teen television drama.
Slean is surely capable of more.
— Amy O’Brian, Vancouver Sun