Former acoustic troubadour goes electric in order to exorcise some demons in one of the year’s most raw and cathartic records so far.
My cousin, probably the single biggest influence on my musical tastes growing up, once said to me, “There is no place for desperation in music.” I’d lent him a copy of Bright Eyes’ Lifted.. convinced he’d fall as hopelessly in love with it’s disarming honest existential breakdowns and emotional temper tantrums as I was. But he was nonplussed. Conor Oberst’s brand of angst didn’t hit him square in the gut like they did me. He found them sort of embarrassing. He was a good 6 years older than me and probably over the same lost early-20-something-phase I was going through, and looking back I can see his point. But I stand by my response: “I think it’s the best place for it.”
(I can’t remember whether I actually said that or thought it later and wished I’d said it. But I’m writing this story so let’s pretend I said it and that he looked like his mind had been blown by my devastating insight).
But then I would say that. I’ve always been in love with the idea music as catharsis, an exorcism of demons and a scouring of the soul through a scream and a guitar solo. My cousin would have likely argued that all music is artifice – trying to capture the immediacy of raw emotions through songs that are written and rehearsed endlessly before being performed is an impossible and dishonest task. How can you feel that gut wrenching rejection on the 30th take of a song written weeks or months earlier? It’s theatre, a performance – and so in some way inauthentic. I’d argue that the beauty of pop music is in it’s ability to capture those feelings, a perfect bassline, guitar tone, synth wash, drum beat etc etc etc all acting as amber, preserving them for eternity. Take the opening track on HEAL, Goshen ’97. Strand of Oaks, aka Timothy Showater, was previously an acoustic troubadour type but on HEAL, by far his most open and overtly personal record so far, he’s decided to plug in and rock out, going for that widescreen Americana sound, drinking deep from that well of Springsteenian influence that has been one of the prevailing sources of post millennial indie inspiration. It’s a song filled of sketches: Goshen 97 could be describing any weird kid’s backstory – if you swapped the basement for the attic and renamed it Barnsley 97 it could be have been written by me (so long as you ignore my complete lack of musical talent for a minute). The details, “Singing Pumpkins in the mirror/ porn in files beneath my bed” are eerily familiar. And as the drum hammers away and the seemingly perpetual fuzzed up guitar solo squeals in the background I feel 14 again, lost in an endless summer of second hand grunge, boredom and masturbation. Music has that kind of time capsule quality – both for the good and bad times. And it can capture rock-bottom desperation in just the same way. So why shouldn’t it?
A deeply personal and emotionally charged record like this always has a catalyst in the writer’s recent history inspires it – in Showater’s case his wife’s infidelity is the driving force for him to scour his soul clean with music. The incident is tackled head on by the two most devastating tracks on the record – the title track introduces nu-wave synths into the mix, a sad and nostalgic wash over a hammering beat backing what sounds like an almost stream-of-consciousness reel of epiphanies and confessions. When Showater sings, “you gotta heal” you feel he’s not offering advice but trying to will himself into coming to terms with all that he’s been through, repeating it like a mantra to keep himself from falling. Even more emotionally charged is Mirage Year, which describes the relationship and the betrayal in stark terms. It runs through their happier times, describing them in black and white photographs as “..beautiful, broken and young.” It’s the language of romanticising misery, of loss – that ineffable beauty that you can find in sadness. But as things deteriorate it becomes about learning what all that really means. “I was in love but it was changing” is about as simple and sad and beautiful a line as you could hope to hear about a relationship on the wane. Then when he tackles the moment that, “that fucker was having his fun”, Showater unleashes a harrowing roar and a battered and bruised guitar solo. It’s so heartbreakingly powerful the record never really recovers – it should really end here, the two tracks after it sound entirely redundant. The T-Rex-esque stomp of For Me sounds flimsy in comparison. Closer Wait for Love fares better but still lacks the power of Mirage Year.
That’s the trouble with taking the listener through such harsh territory – the less personal songs songs suffer by being juxtaposed with such intensity. It would be draining to keep the emotional needle in the red throughout, for the listener as well as Showater, but a lot of the other tracks still feel like filler. May they’ll come up on shuffle sometime and sound decent in isolation, though there are a couple of songs I wouldn’t expect even that from. Strand of Oak’s new found pop sensibility leans too much towards the middle of the road at times, sliding perilously towards Coldplay and latter day U2 territory on Woke up to the Light and Plymouth. But mostly HEAL drags itself back from the brink and is rescued by a slightly ragged production. Nothing here is too clean, everything has rough edges to match the grit of the subject matter.
And to be fair two of the album’s best songs have nothing to do with the events that inspired HEAL or Mirage Year. Single Shut In is one of the best songs of the year, a brilliant anthem for the lost and afraid. It describes the borderline agrophobic lowest ebb it’s easy to find yourself in when the world just seems too overwhelming, a time when the line “Now I just get loaded and never leave the house” seems like a reasonable response to life. But like much of HEAL Showater offers some hope, or even a lifeline: “know my name/know I mean it/it’s not as bad as it seems/and we try in our own way to get better/even if we’re alone.” Showater obviously wants to not only describe his own trials and tribulations but leave this album as a guiding light for those in the same place. In that respect Shut In is it’s centerpiece. It could be the theme song for Achewood’s Roast Beef’s Home for Scared people.
This theme is picked up again on JM – a tribute song to the late, great (and I don’t use that cliché lightly) Jason Molina. Showater lists snapshots of moments in his life where Molina’s music has been a balm for him, the dark moments where he was consoled by having such wonderful music to rely on, as a constant in a turbulent world. Rather than describing the man himself JM is about the music that soundtracks your own private battles long after the artist’s own war has been fought and won or lost. And in a way HEAL is Showater’s pitch to pick up that torch, to be the sweet tunes to play when you need a sympathetic voice wavering over some wounded guitar noise to make you feel less alone in the world. That might sound like a cynical play, but he pulls it off with empathy, the sheer force of his hard fought emotional honesty and, most importantly of all, some straight up good songwriting. It’s an album of alchemy, of taking life’s bleakest parts and turning them into something beautifully human and deeply affecting. It sounds like Showater went through hell to get to the point he could make HEAL, an album bold enough to show it’s hand and tell you what exactly it wants to be and is just about bloody, ragged and desperate enough to pull it off.