Few things are heavier than heartache. Navigating that particular storm of loss remains one of the most formative human experiences, which is why there are so many albums about heartbreak. The topic would be trite if it were not for how deeply we identify with the battered and broken artists, and how potent the emotion remains even years removed from our breakups. Even so, the propensity to stand out as an artist dealing in heartbreak, especially in the arena of R&B, is quite low. Being that heartbreak and love are such universal experiences, it can feel as if anyone with a halfway decent microphone can make a halfway decent career of singing or crooning their woes.
When artists do stand out, then, we have much cause to celebrate and such is the case with Summer Walker, an Atlanta singer who took the skeleton of success from her 2018 debut, Last Day of Summer, and brought it to jazzy life on her latest and most successful body of work, CLEAR. Where Last Day of Summer skimmed across a vast pool of emotion, CLEAR has Walker trudging through the muck of feeling to get to the alkaline truth of heartbreak and pining. There is a pure and classic quality to CLEAR, a sense that Walker’s dedication to the blues of R&B makes her a unique voice in the field akin only to H.E.R., who just so happens to be GRAMMY nominated.
There is nothing contrived on CLEAR. Summer Walker leads with sincerity and earnestness across the four, jazz-leaning tracks. Opener “Riot” has bone-deep wisdom on love and necessity, while “Grave” bears an equally aged conviction. Yet, for all the grooves and rhythms on the tracks, neither song is particularly heavy. Summer Walker found a way to make velvet light like silk. Be it the sauntering keys on “Settling” or the gentle touch of bass, Walker is a levitating songstress. She channels the depths of her pain and uses that energy to float over production that would not sound foreign spilling out of a plush New York jazz club. The only difference being, Summer Walker is writing her own jazz standards.
This is reflected further in the live recordings for the EP, set in a treehouse wonderland. The rich and inviting timbre of the live renditions helps produce an enveloping warmth and sweetness. We are brought into the world of Summer Walker’s voice and musical phrasing. No longer simply listeners, we are living within each note and feeling through each mood as Walker herself feels through them. The chirp of night sounds and nice use of bokeh to blur the lights gives us an overwhelmingly nostalgic feeling. Summer Walker is tapping into late-night memories we’ve all made, read about, seen, or lusted after. She is the sonic tether to our collective experience in all manner of evening musings: lit candles, glasses of wine, mugs of tea, close friends, and the smokey heat rising from an overrun furnace.
“What an addiction, so high a cost / Gambled it all just to be lost / But no love lost, no bridges burned / You live and you learn / I learned from my hurt” —Summer Walker, “Wasted”
Perhaps most exciting is the earned wisdom that Summer Walker packs into her ballads. Where young contemporaries in the R&B genre also take careful stock of their pain, Walker does the important work of deriving agency from her pain. She goes on to situate the pain as a lesson, always. She does not romanticize the struggle, but Walker does make the process of coming away a stronger woman all the more exciting and enticing. On “Wasted,” a song about losing yourself in your lover to the point of toxicity but enjoying the tumbling nonetheless, Walker nicely juxtaposes her emotional maturity with her desire to do the bad thing.
She repeats this again on “Settling,” opening with: “I can't live with you but I can't live without you.” A cloud of mourning overtakes the track as Summer Walker attempts to balance her desire with her knowhow. It’s an affecting moment where her conflict claws at our hearts and summons memories we’ve otherwise repressed, and in turn, it is also a finely crafted note on pacing. Consider the open of CLEAR, and how Walker claimed love to be “too routine,” and demanded more of her partner. Yet, by the end of the EP, she finds herself quite literally settling in the face of a cloying love. Conflict drives the whole of CLEAR, then, as we witness the growing vexation of a woman who in all avenues attempts to claim her agency over her lover.
The lesson, of course, is that no one is too good for heartache. Summer Walker makes that pain an essential part of her EP without drowning us in sentimental novelty and pity. The journey of the project is subtle, much like the warring is subtle yet insidious. As we listen to Summer Walker unravel, we take note that she quietly undid each stitch herself across four impressive tracks. Her jazzy bend on R&B gives her the room to make reinvigorated life music. With the buttoned-up details of the genre at her disposal, Summer Walker is telling some of the most carefully crafted stories in the field, right under our noses. CLEAR places Walker in an arena of her own, where the notion of competition melts away and all that we have left is Summer, her truth, and the promise of even greater music to come.