Olivia Dean Messy review

Messy review | A triumphant genre-spanning debut from Olivia Dean

Embracing the highs and lows of romantic relationships and family history, Olivia Dean’s debut album Messy certainly lives up to the hype, writes Hannah Mylrea.


Olivia Dean’s debut album Messy embraces the complex reality of everyday life, mess and all. It’s an album, she’s explained: “About learning to love again, the fear that comes with it, finding independence within that still and being grateful for where you came from.” As she reassures herself on the title track: “No need to be ready / It’s okay if it’s messy”.

This personable honesty has always permeated the East London artist’s music. After a stint studying at the prestigious BRIT school, and an early break collaborating with UK electronic-pop outfit Rudimental on their tune ‘Adrenaline’, Dean started sharing her own music almost five years ago.

Since then, she’s collaborated with the likes of Loyle Carner and Leon Bridges, earned a reputation for her stellar live shows (including one at last week’s Glastonbury festival), and released a string of EPs, each one further showcasing her genre-shifting sound and heart-on-sleeve lyrics.


These projects have also built Dean a loyal fanbase. Her recent headline shows in London at both the Roundhouse and KOKO sold out in a matter of hours. It’s an audience that also includes pop icon Elton John, who’s said of Dean: “She’s got that personality that really shines through… she is going to be a really big star.”

Messy feels like both the culmination and a celebration of the past five years of work, each of Dean’s previous releases and her live shows feeding into, and informing, the record. Teaming-up with musician and producer Matt Hales (who’d previous collaborated with Dean on 2021 Growth EP tune ‘Slowly’, a soft paean to slowly falling in love again after a breakup), they’ve crafted a musical portrait of Dean’s life, one that never shies away from any messy or big feelings.

The delicate, Imogen Heap-influenced ‘UFO’ sees Dean hesitantly dissect the “sexy problems” of love, unsure of where she stands in a blossoming relationship; comparatively ‘Dive’ sees Dean more confident in her choices, totally giving herself over to new love. Or, as she puts it in the jubilant bridge, she’s “diving into you, diving into me.” 

‘Dangerously Easy’, meanwhile, accurately depicts the knotty emotions of seeing an old flame with somebody else (“The face, smiling in my place”). Over psych-flecked instrumentals, Dean reflects that the new beau is: “Probably the one / Gets on so well with your mum”, later candidly assessing her own behavior: “But I’m still stuck in my own way / Always choosing the hard way”.

Throughout, this magnetic, frank lyricism is coupled with far-spanning musical influences. The brass-heavy ‘Dive’ is a modern take on Motown; the title track’s subtle acoustic guitar licks and twinkling piano chords are reminiscent of early Coldplay; and ‘Danger’ fuses elements of Lovers’ rock and bossa nova.

Yet despite the varied instrumentals, Dean’s lilting toplines and lush vocals act as a through line, her voice elevating the genre-hopping tunes.

It’s the album’s closer ‘Carmen’ that’s its absolute triumph, though. The track is a tribute to Dean’s grandmother, who moved to the UK from Guyana when she was 18, as part of the Windrush generation.

‘Carmen’ opens with a recording of Dean’s gran’s voice, with Carmen telling her story and reflecting on getting on a plane for the first time, before Dean’s vocals begin, singing: “First time on a plane, 18, you came / You found a door and held it open.” 

Olivia Dean

Photo: Emily Braham

Over soaring instrumentals that gradually grow with brass and steel pans joining the mix, Dean continues Carmen’s story: “You transplanted a family tree / And part of it grew into me,” later adding: “You’re stronger than I’ll ever be / Never got a jubilee / I’ll throw it for you, Carmen.” 

It feels like a fitting end to Messy, a project that consistently scales Dean’s songwriting skyward. An honest portrayal of growth, family and falling in love, being messy has never sounded so good.

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