Willow has never been one to stay in her comfort zone. At only twenty-one years old, she’s five studio albums into her career, having seemingly tapped into every alternative music genre under the sun. After the success of her 2021 pop-punk album, LATELY I FEEL EVERYTHING, fans would likely have no issues with Willow giving them more of the same. But she’s ready to change it up again with her fiery new release, <COPINGMECHANISM>.
One look at the decidedly Gen-Z song titles, which invoke internet aesthetics with their unpredictable lettering and punctuation, reveals the record’s youthful direction. Willow’s frank lyricism reflects the harsh emotional experiences of early adulthood. She builds on the emo and punk energies of her previous work with a newly stripped-back sound inspired by the online rise of bedroom rock.
The standout feature of <COPINGMECHANISM> is Willow’s stunningly raw vocal performance. Throughout the album, she moves cleanly between slick pop melodies and breathy falsettos, to gruesome screamo howls. Her performance not only exerts an incredible control over her voice, but highlights her personable lyrics. Once directing her vitriol at others on hits like ‘t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l’, <COPINGMECHANISM> turns her attention inward, focusing on her own self-sabotaging patterns. This perspective makes for a comparatively introspective listening experience. The visual world Willow builds, through “darkened forests” and empty household rooms, feels deeply isolating.
“I cannot get over all this shit”, Willow admits on ‘FALLING ENDLESSLY’, the album’s most clear commercial hit. It’s an upbeat number which swings wildly between smooth pop choruses and warped metal-influenced verses. Somehow, this still feels impressively natural. These constant dynamic shifts are commonplace throughout the album. Despite every song seeming structurally disjointed on paper, Willow’s sticky, expressive melodies make the experience seamless. It helps that the instrumentation also seems to purposefully pay tribute to her chameleoning career. Elements of her psychedelic folk self-titled EP, her alt-pop work with Tyler Cole as The Anxiety, and last year’s punk-rock bangers, blossom throughout each song. She is fluent in all aspects of musical history, and highly capable of bridging the gaps in her discography, to craft a sound that is uniquely Willow.
Brutal electric guitars rush into every track, providing distorted solos, fuzzy power chords and trippy background layers. ‘WHY?” revolves around a softer guitar lick clearly inspired by early works of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, whilst the sharp solo in ‘<maybe> it’s my fault’ echoes Muse’s heaviest moments. Explosively big drums also barrel through each song. This busy, bombastic percussion shapes the restless energy that defines <COPINGMECHANISM>.
Whilst the album’s first half focuses on Willow’s mental introspection, later tracks graze the surface of a past relationship gone wrong. The aptly titled ‘split’ serves as the album’s centrepiece, thematically dividing the record in two. ‘split’ is a softer moment amongst a collection of otherwise thrashing guitars and ragged vocals. Beginning as an embarrassed apology for moments of mental weakness, it then develops into the heartbreaking introduction to a series of songs which explore the “jagged pieces” of a lost love with a mysterious “her”.
These complications between handling love and mental health are understandably conflicting for Willow. Whilst ‘ur a <stranger>’ insists “it’s fine” that her past lover has moved on, her aggressive delivery suggests otherwise. The album’s singular collaboration, ‘Perfectly Not Close To Me’, emphasises this denial. Lo-fi production and digital vocals from Yves Tumour in each verse sharply contrast Willow’s agonised refrain. Her usually whimsical, elaborate language is reduced to simply recognising the situation has gone irreversibly wrong, as she wails, “Oh my God… I don’t wanna talk sh*t / But I’m so f*cked up just like this”.
But it’s the beautiful femininity on display in ‘HOVER like a goddess’ which makes the most impact. Lyrics depicting a fantasy woman under the covers draw on historically queer literature, such as the tidal imagery in Sappho’s poetry. Juxtapositions between guitars that strum heavily, then pluck more gently, metaphorically move through Willow’s honest expression of sexuality. “I’ll never be fine if you won’t be mine”, she finally reveals, answering the questions of turmoil lingering in the album’s second half. On top of its strong literary references, the track also chronicles iconic moments in queer women’s rock, such as T.A.T.U’s infamous ‘All The Things She Said’ or Halsey’s more recent single ‘honey’.
Although <COPINGMECHANISM> never even touches the thirty-minute mark, it packs a punch in its brief runtime. It’s a tight collection of songs which explores a vast range of genres, yet remains cohesive. Such fluidity can be credited to Willow’s emphasis on emotion above all else. She is straight to the point, letting the music take on the complex work, and say everything for her. The result is a dazzling, inventive new entry into Willow’s catalogue. Put as simply as her own powerful lyrics, <COPINGMECHANISM> is undoubtedly Willow’s strongest work to date.