The moon motif is one running through much of popular literature. William Shakespeare utilized such poetic imagery most notably in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not only as a way to cement time of day for the audience (his plays were performed during the day) but in crafting a dreamlike state. In Romeo & Juliet, he makes references to Diana, the goddess of the hunt in Roman mythology, also representative of the moon, chastity and fertility, and wields significance for womanhood and femininity, as Diana was also the patron of slaves and women seeking to have children. Possessing a fierce spirit (and a quick temper), she was a symbol of courage and would become the archetype of the strong-willed, resilient, independent woman. “I’m obsessed with the moon. I often climb up onto my roof in Nashville and have a drink, stare up, and have a think,” mettlesome singer-songwriter Sonia Leigh ruminates about her deep fascination with the hanging orb.
The looming, silvery figure is imperative to our very existence. Without it, we’d be cast in total darkness and misery, rocking between ghostly remnants of humanity and devilish wails, burrowing their way under our skin. Leigh’s “Walking in the Moonlight” then is a magical, romantic excursion, laced with subtle edge ⎯⎯ “I wanted one to feel they were walking down a beach on a summer night somewhere like Thailand,” she says ⎯⎯ and its flickering, buoyant production paints a luminescent and mystical mood. “There is an innocent sweet approach to this romantic scene of getting swept away into this dreamy type scenario with someone. Everyone has seen the moon when he’s swollen and full to the point of amazement,” Leigh explains.
“Big yellow eye, looking down, hanging high / Deep in the ocean, pulling on the tides,” she varnishes, priming the sweeping and fantastical tone of her latest record. “Crowned in the art of a radiant sky / Stars dance on and on in the dark night.”
Mad Hatter as its called is an aggressive collection of troubled confessions, pushing her craft to the edge and beyond, almost abandoning her country roots for a bolder, rawer and more ambitious posture. Leigh is cursed, and she finds herself often in the clutches of the Devil, who intends to drag her further into the fires of Hell. “Thirsty like a vampire / Hallow eye, rob my grave,” she snarls on the front-porch, boot-stomping blues ditty “Acid Rain,” whittled with sinister electric guitar, a cool, ghoulish mist and a story of heartbreak. As she cuts her way through the oppressive stain of squalor, she claws her way out of rock bottom, finding her identity and untangling her heartstrings.
Grunge-rock lead single “Jack is Back” finds Leigh addressing her sexuality for the first time ever in song. “She’s gone but I ain’t alone,” she caterwauls amidst drowning waves of grimy guitar vibrations. She depicts the immediate aftermath of the breakup, an unexpected disaster which sent her careening to the darkest place she’d ever been in her life. “I’m gonna paint this town neon black,” she later taunts, warning everyone in her path that she’s “gonna raise a little hell” to make up for lost time and soothe her aching heart. Fizzy lo-fi song “N.Y.C.” brushes with similar touch points (distorted vocals, a welcome bonus), and in between thundering drums, she hopes the bright lights of New York City remind her ex of the past. “When you’re walking on the boulevard feeling so pretty with your uptown prowl out, I hope deep down you’re thinking of me,” she purrs, a sly smirk crinkling her lips.
Alice in Wonderland is planted firmly into the album’s backbone, best exemplified in the title song. “I swear there was a time she really loved me,” Leigh mutters on “Mad Hatter,” a piano-drenched mid-tempo of longing, regret and suffering, filtered through rugged vocal processing. She unapologetically documents her desire to reclaim her lover. “So deep, so true, even now, it’s hard to believe she’s really gone / And to think about it now, seems just like a dream / But the truth is, after all this time, I’d still give anything / I take it to my grave but that don’t matter / ‘Cause she’s Alice in Wonderland and I’m the Mad Hatter / It’s like she was never here and it never happened / But when I think of her, I chase the white rabbit to a place where she’s mine and time moves backwards.”
“Alice, if you ever miss my love, you can still have it,” she confesses, wearing her love-torn affirmation on her sleeve.
Co-produced by Leigh, along with Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay, Emily West), Jazz Feezy (Drake, T.I.), Scena (Chris Young, Young Thug), Frank Romano (Usher, John Legend), Mikal Blue (Celine Dion, Mariah Carey) and Micah Wilshire (Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen), the 11 tracks intertwine flecks of country, pop and rock, blues bubbling between the cracks. Leigh shoots from the hip, from such Joan Jett-reminiscent anthems as “Waste the Day” (“Sober’s overrated / I stay self-medicated”) and bellowing rollick “Sky Submarine” ⎯⎯ “you and me, we’ve got the same disease,” she shouts ⎯⎯ to swirling “Diamond in the Desert,” which extends her play with celestial bodies, paired with a hike through the scorched desert (“I’m kicking through the sand and the bones / Wise man says you can’t get water from a stone”). She even strikes a lush hip-hop moment with “Mind on the Prize,” the closer which keeps her moving away from anguish into a revelatory phase of life.
Leigh does make sure to take a dip or two into grounded, homegrown country grit. “Dead Mans Sunrise” is a dusty, saloon-style ode to her continuing expedition through despair and bitterness, dressed with chalky percussion and blustering strings. It’s almost as if she is giving her last rites just as the sun dawns on a new day. “I feel it in my bones / It’s coming my time,” she details. “I’m ready / Oh, I’m ready now / If I make it the end of the night, I’ll be a miracle walking in a dead mans sunrise.” Then, “Shelter” bends under the scope of a gentle, throwback waltz structure, a classic country tear rumbling underneath. “I want to get lost in this world with you,” she coos, vowing to not let her tragic past blind her from new love. “I want to get lost in this world with you / Darling, forever…”
Mad Hatter is an exemplary display of Leigh’s capabilities. She’s fearless and unmerciful, vulnerable and discerning, rebellious and triumphant. She’s unfazed in showing you her scares, inviting you to behold the tragedy, the truth, the unspoken virtues. You’ll surely laugh and cry, as you are taken through each chilling and traumatic stage of recovery, hopefully gaining a bit of wisdom along the way.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5