For her first solo album City of No Reply Amber Coffman, formerly of the Dirty Projectors, has crafted a batch of songs that largely evoke the struggle of learning to love yourself, and know that you are enough. The first song on the album “All to Myself” is an apt introduction, as it paints a picture of sitting around “dwelling on … loneliness.” That sounds sad, but the slightly doo-wop flavor of the tune transmits a slightly more positive message to the listener as Coffman sings to remind herself “there’s no one to run to… gotta sing it all to myself… there’s a voice inside of me and it’s time to listen.” It’s a small but spiriting message: that your own thoughts are worth listening to, even if you’re the only one listening.
The rest of the album largely includes songs about relationships that crumble due to some kind of emotional distance on one side, apart from “No Coffee” which is a pretty straightforward single about the exhilaration of a new love (“I don’t need no coffee, I’m wide awake”). “City of No Reply,” “Do You Believe” and “If You Want My Heart” all follow that similar pattern. “City of No Reply” is one of the livelier tracks on the album, with Coffman confronting a person who doesn’t “want to watch [her] cry,” who should “run, run away” to live in the “city of no reply.”
On the other hand, the rest of the songs follow the message put forth in “All to Myself.” “Dark Night” is a slightly funky jam about picking up and talking to the future when it calls, while “Under the Sun” is a self-affirming song about simple pleasures: “under the sun is where I play, love and music keeps me happy, under the stars is where I live.” The final track, “Kindness,” wraps up the album with lyrics like “we’ll tell them we did the best we could,” putting a bow on a running theme of forgiving yourself, and even forgiving others you previously thought had wronged you completely (as in “Do You Believe,” in which the singer acknowledges in the final lines that she wasn’t honest with herself about the relationship).
The album as a whole throws in dashes of R&B (“If You Want My Heart”) and funk (“Dark Night”), which helps to liven up the material, but the music is generally so muted that the songs start to bleed together into a sleepy kind of uniformity. The title track stands out for being one of the more “aggressive” songs on the album, which still isn’t saying much. While Coffman’s gentle and clear vocals are mellifluous, her delivery in each song is fairly similar, which contributes to the sensation of each track sounding like the others. The first half of the album in particular is differentiated enough to grab our attention, and a little bit of our hearts, but as it goes on the messages and music start to feel a bit repetitive.
Regardless, the general theme makes for an interesting one for a solo record. Coffman covers wanting to disappear into a new life (“Nobody Knows”), as well as the realization that you can’t and must accept what you have (“All to Myself,” “Under the Sun,” “Brand New”). Letting yourself change, because change doesn’t have to be scary is a slightly meta theme for a first solo album, but delivered with Coffman’s sincere voice it becomes touching enough to avoid being trite. If there was a little bit more audible life behind the lyrics, the message might have held even more power.