Modern country artist Pearl Charles has been carving out a unique place in music her whole career, having experience in multiple groups of different genres including country and rock. She first began to show off her solo abilities on her 2018 debut album Sleepless Dreamer in which she took aspects from her past musical experiences and utilized a unique country pop sound. In her newest album Magic Mirror she once again opts for a special kind of country with added elements of jazz and disco, but with a large emphasis on storytelling. But with inconsistent themes and not much variety in musical style across the album, it falls short of being insightful and instead goes in multiple directions that never have a clear reason behind them.
Magic Mirror is split into a three part act with the beginning being about a failing relationship, the middle being about navigating through the feelings of being lost in yourself, and in the end becoming happy again through a new, more loving relationship.
The first act is the best part of the record by far because the songs in this section, that being “Only for Tonight,” “What I Need,” and “Imposter,” are all composed very differently from each other and make the beginning of the record the best listening experience. It starts off with the track “Only for Tonight,” an attention grabbing track about someone being in a relationship in which they have to fake their feelings to be happy, and the instrumentation on this track specifically works very well with the writing. The combination of upbeat piano and sharp synthesizers creates an oddly happy feeling when paired with the melancholy lyrics, “Underneath those lights, looks like we’ll last forever / Although we’d never make it, tonight I’m gonna fake it.” This juxtaposition shows the back and forth emotions the narrator is having about believing they and their lover can be together, but then wanting to just accept they won’t work out and live with that. This early development of a narrative is interesting and provides insight onto a common circumstance so that it adds substance to the already fairly catchy first track. This song is without a doubt one of the most entertaining and unique on this record and would have been great somewhere in the middle to act as a change of pace, but with it being the very first on the album, the merit of the record as a whole suffers later on.
Coming into the second act of the record, the narrator leaves the relationship they were in and finds themselves in a position where they don’t know how to feel. They no longer have anyone to help them fake their happiness, and they begin to realize that they really don’t know who they are or how they can cope by themselves. This section’s storytelling, while relatively easy to understand, feels drawn out and not much is done with the main topic of feeling lost and trying to find oneself. Sonically, this section also falters with the tone and sound of each track being very similar to each other and with all of the instrumentals being very focused on soft guitar and breezy piano. The sound of these tracks is relaxing while still creating somewhat of an insightful sort of mood for the listener, but the lack of unique vocal delivery or instrumentals still makes them feel quite weak overall.
The first track in this section, “Imposter,” begins by attempting to add more to the overall themes of the record and shifts the instrumentation to a new sound from the first act. The track maintains similar elements of instrumentals, which helps the overall flow, but there are also some small additions of drawn out country style strings and even some horns which give the song an ability to stand out from the tracks before it. This unique instrumentation also aids the narrative somewhat with the odd combinations of instruments present on the track making it feel like a bunch of thoughts are flowing through the listener’s head. However, even with the instrumentation working well, the overall writing on the track feels lazy. The first verse works well with the themes, with the narrator telling the listener to, “Never look into the mirror, they always say that’s your first mistake / You don’t think you’ll disappear, till they come to steal your face.” Even so, the song only has this and one other very short verse, and the rest of the song gets quite repetitive. Repetition isn’t always a bad thing, but with the record being so clearly focused on painting a story to push the themes forward more clearly, on this track the overall message feels underdeveloped.
Finishing off the second act is “Slipping Away,” another track about the narrator’s inability to see their purpose or understand exactly what they need to do to figure themselves out. With this track being the sixth on a ten track album, it is at an approximate halfway point, yet it feels like it’s been a variation of the same song three or four times in a row. The instrumental is bland and doesn’t bring much new to the table, with this song using the same country style guitar layered with some psychedelic background sounds just like the tracks before it. The problem is not that Pearl fails to create a good sound with her unique spin on country, but rather that this sound doesn’t change enough to warrant a new track and this causes the listening experience to begin to feel drawn out. Also on this track, the lyricism again is very similar to that of previous songs, making the listening that much more boring. One set of lyrics on this song is, “We know we live, we know we die, but we don’t know why we’re here,” which again portrays basically the same exact thing as the other tracks in this act. These songs are meant to have the same sort of themes, but just how much they take from each other makes them bleed together way too much for them to stand well together. A great record maintains cohesive elements while still allowing for the individual tracks to stand on their own with unique aspects, but with this act they sound so similar that it feels like listening to bits of the same track over and over.
As the album goes into its third act, the instrumentation continues with the same pop country style but it adds enough new tempos to change the tone from the second act to make sense with the context of the narrative and add more interesting aspects. In regards to the writing, the third act is at a point where the narrator has found a new relationship and the love that they have with this new person makes them feel great again, with them apparently completely okay with not knowing more about themselves like they had previously been addressing. The awkward transition from being in a state of confusion about their own meaning and just going straight to being okay again after being in a new relationship feels forced and makes it seem like there should have been some sort of growth for how they got to that point.
The final track “As Long As You’re Mine” sounds much better than tracks before it at first with some soothing guitar strums filling the beginning of the song, but as the song continues it goes to a more upbeat jazzy style and the guitar goes from soothing to sharp piercing notes that shake things up and make it one of the more enjoyable tracks. Also with a slight shift in vocal delivery, this song is a much needed change of pace with such a large portion of the album having such a dreary tone and not much innovation between tracks. Because of this, this track is also one of the better ones to listen to just for the musicality of it. With that being said, the song comes so late in the album, it leaves the listener off on a good note sound wise, but it comes so late that most listeners would probably turn it off before even getting to the final track anyway.
On top of that, the narrative shift in the third act, especially on that last track, “As Long As You’re Mine,” makes paying attention to the writing in the songs feel like a huge waste of time because the themes across the record end up amounting to pretty much nothing cohesive. The writing begins with feelings of sadness and confusion with the narrator questioning themselves and who they really are, and this is a great focus because so many people go through this in the world. Yet, almost out of nowhere, the message shifts to instead assert that love conquers all and that’s what makes one’s happiness come to fruition. This track even goes so far as to say that, “It doesn’t matter that there’s rockets flyin’, it doesn’t matter that the water’s risin’, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re mine.” This drastic change from focusing on what is going on in this person’s mind feels very strange when immediately after they decide that the best way to deal with those feelings is to get into another relationship. Writing with the purpose of conveying themes well is such an important part of an effective album, and with the change from telling the listener to learn about themselves to just get with someone else and everything will be fine, it shows a complete lack of focus with what the album actually wants to tell the listener, which makes the writing fall very short.
Magic Mirror is a record that musically sticks to what Pearl Charles knows best, taking country and spinning it in a way that hasn’t been done before, and she does accomplish that. That being said, there are issues instrumentally and most of all narratively that make it tough to listen all the way through without raising an eyebrow. The use of country combined with disco and jazz elements works at first, but without much else being added to this mix throughout the course of the record, it quickly becomes stale. It’s no longer the more flashy style of country she aims for from the beginning, and the lack of additions doesn’t help that. There are definitely songs that are great on their own, but collectively, they are not so great. However, by far the biggest factor that hurts this record is that the narrative and themes feel so all over the place that by the time the record ends the listener has no clue what the meaning is even supposed to be. It begins with an interesting look into failed relationships and how they can make an individual question who they themselves are, but by the end of the album that is almost entirely abandoned and it completely ruins the emotional experience of the writing on the work as a whole. With more emotional progression in the writing and more cohesive changes in tone and tempo, both the narrative and the instrumentals could improve and make Magic Mirror a much better listening experience. But without these elements, this record mainly serves not as a display of Pearl Charles’ unique style, but rather an example of why unorganized themes and the unwillingness to take more calculated risks on an album can create simultaneously both a boring and an all over the place type of record.
Liam Fitzpatrick is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl