If there’s one thing to take away from Kelly Oliver’s album Bedlam, it’s that she is a master storyteller. From first loves, to insanity and everything in between, Oliver delivers slices of life in an old world folk manner that sets her apart from many on the folk scene today.
The opening track “Bedlam” may be a little heavy for some listeners, and while the dark song doesn’t exactly set listeners up in the right mood for the rest of the album, it does let the audience know that Oliver can impressively tell tales that are not her own. Here, Oliver, against a backdrop of frantic strings, sings of a woman who is placed in a cell after having her young baby be taken away from her. It’s complicated and topical, and the contrast between the lyrics and Oliver’s breathtaking vocals only make the song that more compelling.
“Lay Our Heavy Heads” tells the story from start to finish of the life of a couple from their first meeting to their dying days. It is intricate and filled with emotion and the fact that Oliver can make listeners feel so intensely about two people, and the ups and downs they go through, in the span of a swift song speaks volumes for Oliver’s ability as a songstress. It’s sweet, sad, and beautiful all at the same time, the type of song that evokes real feelings and will probably be played at a few weddings. The strings in the background keep the tune moving along and Oliver’s light and airy vocals make the song joyous, even during its more somber moments, basking in glorious love.
Later on in the LP, on “The Other Woman,” Oliver shines as she sings of being the other woman in a relationship, knowing that the man she loves will always put her second and never completely satisfy her. The lyrics are simple but are impressively effective such as when Oliver cries “for his woman he’d do anything to please/I’m the other woman on my knees.” This is yet again another multilayered situation Oliver sings about and while it would be easy to see the main protagonist as someone who is desperate, one cannot help but feel sympathetic towards her and that is all due to Oliver’s gentle delivery. It is haunting in its instrumentation and though most of the songs on this album have a traditional feeling to them, this particular track comes across as a bit more modern, almost along the lines of “Jolene” in its content. The strongest song on the entire album “The Other Woman,” puts Oliver a bit out of the comfort zone she has put up for herself and lets listeners hear the range she has as a singer, while still keeping her trademark sound.
“Die This Way,” makes good use of the harmonica, an instrument that is used repeatedly on this album. The song itself is one that is relevant to every generation as it speaks about war and murder of innocent young females who were simply “walking home.” When Oliver sings that she “doesn’t want to live here,” one gets the feeling that she is not referring to a specific place but the world in general. The turmoil that Oliver presents here isn’t something that one hears everyday in popular music, and that is why folk music is usually the place where artists vent truthfully about the agonies of living and the injustices of the world. It is the most powerful song on the LP and with its universal appeal will surely help Oliver go down as one of the most prolific songwriters in the modern folk scene.
Bedlam knows exactly what type of LP it is and while it remains in a pocket that may seem safe, Oliver does stretch out on “Rio” which comes across as more of a pop song. It doesn’t entirely fit in with the rest of the album, peppy and energetic, but one has to applaud Oliver for trying something different, even if it doesn’t entirely work. It’s a fine song, but it just sort of comes out of nowhere, and that jarring movement may make some listeners doubt its quality, but it’s actually quite good for what it is and perhaps is setting Oliver up for the next stage in her music career.
Overall Oliver’s pure vocals and storytelling ability make Bedlam an album that is worth checking out.