“After years of fighting to get this record released, I cannot believe it is finally here. I am about to have the best sleep I’ve had in a long time…” – Hannah Wicklund, Facebook 12/01/24
Judging by the quality of the material found within ‘The Prize’, Nashville-based singer-songwriter/musician Hannah Wicklund is set to rival Rip Van Winkle in the Best Sleep Ever category, for she has created her ‘Tapestry’, her ‘Rumours’, her ‘No Secrets’, her ‘Jagged Little Pill’. In layman’s terms, she has captured lightning in a bottle.
One fascinating aspect of ‘The Prize’ is the question of what would it have sounded like had it been released years back. After all, it’s been almost 6 years since the South Carolina native released her last studio album; the self-titled album from ‘Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin Stones’. In a 2022 interview with the Nashville Voyager Hannah mentioned that once she turned 18 Scooter Braun had tried to sign her to an artist development deal but she turned him down. Braun is of course infamous as a nemesis of Taylor Swift and given the almost tyrannical way that Braun has held Ms. Swift to ransom over her earlier output – “The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished.” – then perhaps Hannah dodged a bullet. Proudly independent, she is in total control of her career, and ‘The Prize’ is released on her terms, on her own Strawberry Moon Records via the highly-respected Flat Iron Recordings.
Anyone expecting a by-the-numbers blues-rock album should look away now because ‘The Prize’ is anything but that (the sublime closing trio of ‘Intervention’, ‘Dark Passenger’, and ‘Sun to Sun’ are perhaps the few times where you might pick up a hint of the blues, but don’t expect anything resembling “Woke up this morning…” gatekeeper blues). Hannah might have initially made her name as a blues-rock artist but the depth and range of the music on offer over the 10 featured tracks showcase an artist constantly thinking outside of the box. Opening track ‘Hell In The Hallway’, for instance, could be what Florence Welch would sound like if she decided to try her hand at loud, powerful rock music. It’s anything but meat-and-two-veg rock, but it is atmospheric, shimmering, and in places hugely uplifting. The twists and turns are plentiful, and the combination of multiple different guitar tones (including a gorgeous, distorted fuzz-filled tone around the 2-minute mark) with thunderous drums, perfect arrangements, and haunting vocals is spellbinding. The empowering ‘Witness’ quickly follows on with a Tori Amos-like piano intro from Hannah that bleeds into a stunning mixture of Laurel Canyon vibes and beautifully layered backing vocals that transport the listener to another place. And just as you think that you have got it all figured out, here comes the trippy, psychedelic guitar solo complete with Hannah on the talkbox. It is the raw, powerful vocals though that linger on the longest.
Greta Van Fleet bassist Sam Kiszka acts as producer and does a great job. Kiszka also performs bass, keys, and organ duties on the album, while Greta Van Fleet’s Daniel Wagner is the fella behind the drum kit. With these guys on board, it’s only natural that a soupçon of the day job will seep into the album, although the folky-epicness of ‘Lost Love’ and the explosive early stages of ‘Hide and Seek’ are the only times you might find examples of this. The latter does however go off down a different path as the song grows and again the Florence and The Machine vibes are powerful, if commercial radio ever got over their fear of a wailing guitar solo then this one has the makings of a huge radio hit. Ditto ‘Can’t Get Enough’, and it’s easy to imagine this one belting out with a Gospel choir backing Hannah as a full-arena sways their arms in time. Maturity can often be a dividing description, but here, Hannah shows great songwriting maturity.
For all of the guitar fireworks from Hannah (her solos on ‘Sun to Sun’ are capable of stopping a charging rhino), it’s when she dials it back during the mid-section of the album that provides the biggest surprises. Both ‘Song Bird Sing’ and ‘The Prize’ are stripped-back moments of beauty, especially the latter where Hannah shows great restraint by refusing to follow the current trend of vocalists oversinging when it is not needed.
10 tracks of sheer delight. File under “Essential”.
Review – Dave
Stream/purchase ‘The Prize’ here.
UK & Ireland – headline tour:
24th – Chester, The Live Rooms
25th – Sheffield, Corporation
26th – Cardiff, The Globe
28th – Dublin, The Grand Social
29th – Belfast, Ulster Sports Club
31st – Glasgow, G2
1st – Newcastle, Anarchy Brew Co.
2nd – Leeds, Headrow House
4th – Bristol, Strange Brew
All forthcoming live dates can be found here.