It’s a Tuesday afternoon in August and out of pure luck I’m sitting cross-legged on a hotel room floor with twenty or so strangers. Holly Humberstone is sitting on the double bed in front of us, singing songs from her then-unreleased album, Paint My Bedroom Black. In the intimate setting, she’s candid about her guitar sounding out of tune and being overwhelmingly nervous to share songs that expose her in every way.
She’s funnier than I anticipated, and more gentle than coy. She’s soft spoken in a way that draws attention inward; everybody in the crowded hotel room is silent, careful not to miss a word she says, all aware of how special it is to be granted access to her premature profundity. The feeling that if you don’t listen to every word, you’ll miss out on something deeply resonant carries over from that hotel room to the first listen of Holly Humberstone’s debut album, Paint My Bedroom Black.
This record, out now via Polydor/Darkroom/Geffen, acts as a series of diary entries from Humberstone’s journey around the world these past few years. Most of the album came from writing sessions in hotel rooms, while touring with Olivia Rodrigo and girl in red. It’s brimming with mostly devastating stories of longing for comfort and self-destructive guilt set to the tune of experimental synths and more forward production than expected from Humberstone. It’s complex sounding, while maintaining a cohesion that allows the long awaited album to stand as a comprehensive time-capsule of Holly Humberstone’s ascent to fame.
Humberstone seemed to come out of the ether fully formed. She’s been impressing fans and critics alike since her first release, “Deep End,” which came out in 2020 and gained her a loyal and patient fanbase that she seems to view as peers more than anything else. There has been a throughline in her lyrical style that resonates with other young adults, who value the emerging form of simple, unfiltered, confessional storytelling that few do as well as Humberstone. Her diaristic nature has yet to wane in quality, and its effects haven’t grown stale either. In part, the experimental production choices on Paint My Bedroom Black have extended the lifespan of the themes of isolation, heartache, and guilt that Humberstone has nearly over-explored.
Despite continuing to collaborate with the same producer as she’s been working with since her first release, Rob Milton, the album has a distinct thumbprint that weaves indie-rock strings with electro-pop variants. The sonically titillating and undeniably catchy singles follow relatively predictable conventions, but the real power of this album is found on the B-side.
With any modern pop album, there’s a fear that the best tracks are the ones released as singles, but an argument could be made that the back half of Paint My Bedroom Black is the most sonically and thematically compelling run of tracks. More times than admissible, I’ve found myself skipping the entire first half of the album to get to track 8, “Lauren,” a self-loathing fueled anthem with poignant anger and the yearning to be forgiven. Humberstone reveals, “I put my fist through the wall, cause I’ve been falling too short, say the word and I’ll call, say the word and I’m coming back.”
“Flatlining” is the stand out track on this album. Humberstone mourns the dying of a friendship that was once more. Set to an electronic dance track that juxtaposes the devastating lyrics, she admits, “We just can’t be friends anymore, I’ll pull the plug and let the line go flat/Now there’s no coming back from that.” The jarring production choices on this track, including the use of an EKG machine, highlight the artistry that Humberstone has grown into. It’s a departure from a more comfortable and, likely, popular sound she is already on her way to mastering.
While I do applaud Humberstone and Rob Milton, for the risks taken in the production, exploring early 2000s synth sounds and haunting vocal distortions, this album also shines in its simpler moments. Stripped back instrumentation leaves plenty of room for Humberstone’s breathy vocals on the fourth track, “Kissing In Swimming Pools.” In the acoustic guitar led love ballad with self-effacing digs and the pitiful idolization of her partner, Humberstone’s sweet voice carries a sense of longing and infatuation that sits heavily on the chest.
There are moments during the album that Humberstone leans on juvenile and melodramatic songwriting. Even then, she’s self aware enough to know how comically woeful it sounds. On “Into Your Room” she begs, “Don’t make me stand outside in the pouring rain with a freshly ripped human heart from my ribcage, and boombox, how pathetic babe.”
Humberstone’s songwriting feels like it’s set in the present tense, like she’s living out these anxieties in real time. This album is a means of processing, so she has yet to reflect and refine. She has been gracious enough to invite us into her room to watch her lament over her choices and, while we can come and go as we please, she’s stuck there, never overcoming the fears and self vilification that comes with growing up and moving away from home. She remains in a hotel room void of color, singing just loud enough for everybody that loves her to hear.
Paint My Bedroom Black is out now.