Regina is the fourth full length album from Brooklyn based singer/songwriter, Becca Stevens. Her last two albums, Weightless and Perfect Animal are both extraordinary records, but this new album is a creative feat on a completely different level. On Regina, Stevens keeps her unique flavour of jazz and Appalachian folk-tinged songwriting, and dives head first into a concept full of depth, with both musical and emotional twists and turns. The word ‘regina’ (Latin for ‘queen’) is the idea around which this record is based, and with the music she has created here, Stevens proves herself worthy of the various queens she has honoured and immortalised in her songs.
Aesthetically, fans of Stevens’ previous work may be taken a little aback by the change in direction of this new project. By no means is this a negative change. In fact, producer Troy Miller’s (Laura Mvula, Gregory Porter, etc.) work on Regina provides the perfect setting for the record’s regal concept. The production on the album is grander than it’s ever been on a Becca Stevens project, and the deep bass of ‘Queen Mab’ and the lush string quartet arrangements of ‘The Muse’, just to name a couple of examples, perfectly suit the intricate lyrics and the soft growl of Stevens’ gorgeous vocals. It’s also worth noting that the transition between ’45 Bucks’ and ‘Queen Mab’ is so spine-tinglingly wonderful, that it justifies purchasing the whole record, just for that moment. This is still a Becca Stevens album, so the delightfully elaborate charango, guitar and ukulele writing that her audience thrives upon is still a key part of Regina’s compositional style. The album’s title track stands out as having a particularly memorable instrumental line, with a circular charango motif, rich with complexity and brightness.
One of the astoundingly brilliant aspects of Regina is how Stevens amazes with her musical adaptations of lyrics borrowed from powerful literary and historical sources. The tracks which are written this way are particularly fantastic contributions to the album’s overall creative vision. ‘Queen Mab’ – inspired by a character of the same name from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – stands out as one of Stevens’ most smartly written, atmospheric and emotionally resonant songs to date, especially in light of the spirit in which it was written, aided by its ethereal, bass heavy production, rich with echoing, wispy vocals. Other songs on the album written in this fashion include a heart-wrenching lament based on a love letter exchanged between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, which provides a glimpse into the humanity of the regal, historical figure.
Unfortunately, not all of these borrowed-lyric songs work so well. ‘Mercury’, written using quotes and lyrics from Queen’s Freddie Mercury, has an interesting core idea but the result feels fragmented. This is to be expected when the lyric is compiled from various snapshots of Mercury’s life that don’t quite fit together as a whole. The song also feels musically out of place, as it seems just as influenced by bands like Yes as it does by Queen, whilst seemingly leaving Stevens’ style out of the process, save for the meaty jazz harmonies that characterise her writing. Thankfully, this is the only track that misses the mark on the record, and even then, it’s still a relatively enjoyable listen and it is an interesting contribution to the album’s concept. Essentially, this criticism of ‘Mercury’ is just nit-picking an otherwise excellent record.
Something that really makes Regina shine, are the collaborations with other musicians, which add an element of humility and community to the project. Aside from Troy Miller and Stevens’ usual band, Regina sees contributions from the Attacca String Quartet, Laura Mvula, Jacob Collier, Michael League, and song-writing legend, David Crosby. Stevens’ collaboration with Collier is a partnership that was a long time coming, with production input and typically gorgeous, multi-tracked vocal harmonies from the young Londoner, adding something truly special to the track ‘Both Still Here’ and the record’s only cover song, Stevie Wonder’s ‘As’. Crosby’s contribution to the song, ‘The Muse’, also adds flavour to another of Regina’s highlights. This song was co-written by Stevens and Crosby, and was included on the Croz’s 2016 album, Lighthouse, under the name ‘By the Light of Common Day’. Stevens’ version is just as beautiful as Crosby’s, but makes use of grander production, as well as her incredible lead vocal performance, with the older musician providing serene backing vocals. This is one of the tracks that features a wonderful string arrangement, performed by the Attacca Quartet, and serves as one of the most powerful moments on the album.
Regina is an album that has been in the works for a long while, and fans have been taken on a lengthy journey through its creation thanks to the inviting, and inclusive, Pledgemusic campaign that brought it into existence. Thankfully, Stevens has come through with a project that surpasses expectation and delivers a truly profound artistic experience. One can only hope that this record brings her the attention she deserves, and that Regina will be recognised as the wonderfully personal and boundless musical work that it is.