There’s been a lot of build up around the debut album of Sarah Grace McLaughlin, known to the music world as British-American singer-songwriter Bishop Briggs. Briggs has been releasing singles for a few years now, steadily building a following via streaming platforms and Shazam. Before the release of Church of Scars, Briggs released two self-titled E.P.s, resulting in over 400 million global streams and features in MTV’s Scream tv series, Fifty Shades Freed, and an Acura commercial that gained her significant notoriety. Early acclaim earned her comparisons to artists like Adele and an opening spot on a Coldplay tour.
For those who are only familiar with Briggs’s alt radio darling “River,” Church of Scars might be a bit of a surprise. Her debut juggles a variety of musical styles and influences–pop, rock, folk, electronica, blues–resulting in a mix of power ballads, indie pop dance tracks, and more delicate, folksy fare for her debut. Thematically, the album plays with a myriad of opposites; strength and weakness, enemies and lovers, and in the case of album closer “Hi-Lo (Hollow),” the highs and lows of her past experiences.
The album opens on “Tempt My Trouble,” a dance track that might surprise anyone who only knows Briggs for her single “River.” “We’re not friends/And we’re not lovers/We’re just trouble,” Briggs sings, exploring a failed relationship that continues to act as a magnet for her, despite their sordid past. The catchy chorus and simple rhymes of the verses make for a standout pop track, though one that manages to stay consistent with the rest of the album in its dark imagery.
“River,” the album’s second single, has seen the most popularity–with good reason. The song packs a compact punch; what at first seems like a slower, contemplative movement (especially after the dance-friendliness of “Tempt My Trouble”) is actually a powerful demand for Briggs to not back down from her demons. “I feel like this song has multiple personalities: strong, weak, torn, controlling, submissive. They’re all part of me and constantly changing. I think people will feel that,” Briggs explained in her Spotify session. One of the best aspects about this track is how the more violent imagery matches with the gentler music, while the traditionally softer imagery is linked to the powerful chorus. “How do we fall in love?/Harder than a bullet can hit you/How do we fall apart?/Faster than a hairpin trigger,” she sings softly, establishing the more serious tone from the outset.
Briggs shines in her defiance; the best songs on the album focus on her powerful vocals as she refuses to back down from another person or her own inner demons. The Lana Del Rey-esque “White Flag” has bold lyrics like, “But I’m still standing cause I won’t/The hell on Earth you put me through/I’ll save myself in spite of you.” The hauntingly anxious “Wild Horses” alternates acoustic guitar riffs and electronic beats while exploring her tendency to rip open old wounds even when things are going okay. The song includes enough angst to show the song’s age with lyrics like, “You caught my truth in the worst way/Through the dirty lens of a broken smile/I swear I’m not a pretender/Sometimes it’s love who’s the biggest liar.”
While her vocal power and tendency to blend musical styles make for some solid tracks, the album does have its downsides. Church of Scars is hindered by repetitiveness, both lyrically and tonally. Songs like the love song “Lyin’” (co-written with Imagine Dragons’s Dan Reynolds), the unapologetic declaraction of sacred space “Hallowed Ground,” and album closer “Hi-Lo (Hollow) have ostensibly good lyrics that lose all effect due to repetition. Different musical styles help to create a more dynamic feel on the album, but even this falls a little flat due to Briggs’s tendency to keep her voice at the same level regardless of what kind of song she’s singing. Softer moments exist, but ultimately they tend to crescendo to that same level.
Ultimately, Church of Scars is a bit of a mixed bag. The album effectively shows off Briggs’s impressive vocals, demonstrating their power and how adept she is at moving between music genres. Her defiance in the face of trouble shines through her vocals, creating a powerful message of endurance in the face of adversity of many kinds. Unfortunately, the instrumentation taking a backseat to vocals also highlights the weaker side of the lyrics, specifically their intrusively repetitive nature. Even considering its downsides, Church of Scars showcases Briggs’s potential as both a vocalist and songwriter, giving listeners enough reason to add some of her tracks to their playlists and keep their eyes—and ears—on her in the future.