Album Review: Long Beard - Means to Me
Four years is both a long time, and not a long time, depending on how you look at it, and what has occurred to you both personally, as well as in the culture at large, in the interim.
In the autumn of 2015, I was a little over a year into my job writing for the newspaper, and I was very, very deep into the depression brought on by what the job itself asked of me daily, as well as the environment of the newsroom; I was less than a year away from quitting, and seeking refuge within the job that I still have now.
One of our rabbits, Sophie, had passed away roughly eight months prior, and my wife and I were still trying to navigate our new lives living with only one companion rabbit—her sister, Annabell; we still had a number of good years with Annabell left at this point—she became very, very ill and passed away in the spring of 2018.
In the autumn of 2015, we had just become a two car family—after making it nine years with one car, my wife and I needed to be in different places all too often to make it work, and we bought a brand new car; now, that’s the only car we have left. We’ve taken care of it enough that it still smells kind of new—or, at least, doesn’t seem like it is four years old. The brakes went out in what was left of my old car in late 2018—the car, left to rot in our driveway for seven months, was eventually donated to the Humane Society of The United States, and sold at an auction.
In the autumn of 2015, we had entered our final year with Obama as president and we didn’t even know how good we had it.
Four years is both a long time, and not a long time, depending on how you look at it, for an artist, or a band, to wait between albums. Established acts will do this all the time—waiting upwards of five years, sometimes more, in between records. But in that between time, they may also still tour, or perhaps give some updates on what they have been doing.
Leslie Bear did not do that.
Bear, under the moniker Long Beard, released her slow burning, Autumnal debut full length, Sleepwalker, in October of 2015, and in the years that followed, Bear had become extraordinarily quiet—quiet enough to make me wonder if the project was a one time thing, and that she was simply done with making music.
That is, however, not the case.
Arriving almost four years after she issued her debut, Bear has returned with her sophomore full length under the Long Beard name—Means to Me, an arresting, haunting, dreamy, and incredibly sad cycle of songs. It’s the kind of record that more than fulfills the potential she exhibited on Sleepwalker—a fine, if not a little unfocused, debut effort; it’s the kind of record that Bear, if she wanted to, could build her career as a singer and songwriter on; and it’s, hands down, one of the finest, most elegant and evocative things I have heard in 2019.
There’s a compelling backstory to the creation of Means to Me—it certainly helps if you know it before going into the album, but any intelligent listener should be able to surmise the overall conceit of the record without prior knowledge.
Despite the site’s constant shortcomings, one thing Stereogum has been doing a great job of is providing coverage to Bear in advance of Means to Me’s release—with each news brief that shares information about a new single from the album, they also drop in a quote from Bear herself regarding the songs and their respective origins.
Bear wrote the album in response to, and as a way of processing her decision to relocate back to her hometown in the state of New Jersey; once she got there, she found herself stuck in patterns of both nostalgia and isolation. All of the friends she had from the past were long gone, and she more or less had an existential crisis while she was there. The question that is folded within the fabric of the album’s 10 songs asks ‘what constitutes a home?’
Musically speaking, Means to Me shares a number of similarities with the sound Bear developed for Sleepwalker—however, the four years between records has allowed her to develop his sound even further. It’s not a huge sounding record, but it’s musically more robust and complicated than its predecessor, as Bear works to create an intoxicating, invigorating take on gauzy dream pop—complete with moments of shimmering, 1980s inspired synthesizers built into the arrangements, and a solemn, pensive feeling that radiates throughout the album from beginning to end.
As a lyricist, and as a singer, is where Bear reveals her hand on Means to Me—and it’s her haunting, melancholic vocals, and her stark, evocative, and very real lyrics that make this album what it is, and what it is capable of doing to its listener.
Means to Me is unabashed in its honesty, right from the beginning. “Countless,” the album’s 90 second opening track serves as a bit of an ‘intro,’ as well as a thesis statement for what will come from the remaining nine songs.
“I tried moving closer to the city—thought maybe you would see more than once a week, a month, a year, then I moved away quietly,” Bear sings in the song’s devastating opening line. “Still hoping you would talk to me through the colder months of fall—but you never called.” Musically sparse, built around a percussionless arrangement of swirling, dreamy guitars and contemplative piano key plunks, it’s the song’s final line that is probably the hardest to hear: “I know I haven’t moved at all.”
I have described Means to Me to a number of people as a sad album, but in its sadness, Bear is a smart enough songwriter, and collaborating directly with multi-instrumentalist and producer Craig Hendrix, the two have put together some very infectious, melodic arrangements that do their best to distract you from the somber shadow of nostalgia and isolation coming from the lyrics.
One of the album’s most infectious and melodic arrives right away—“Getting By” is the album’s first ‘proper’ track, and even in the sharp, steady rhythm, glistening electric guitars, and at times, jaunty bass line, Bear pleads through it all—“I don’t think I’m ready for it,” she confesses early in the song, followed later by “Tell me I’m doing alright,” and finally, “I’ve had enough.” She began writing the song after her relocation, and was, as she puts it, ‘desperately’ looking for a job; the song was completed while she had taken a job that made her question what she really wanted to be doing with herself.
As the record unfolds, Bear is unrelenting in the ability to pull you down into the mindset she was in while writing and recording Means to Me—on “Snow Globe,” yes, the swirling, effected guitars create a hypnotic atmosphere that is only magnified by those shimmering, synthesizer melodies—but lyrically, it’s among the most self-deprecating of the set, as Bear coos “Aren’t you better off without me rooted in your town?” to an unidentified figure from her past life.
The antagonist of “Sweetheart” is easier identified—Bear’s high school sweetheart; she calls the song a letter to somebody you’ve lost touch with, and are trying to find some small connection to their life with regards to yours. In a sense, it’s also about the dangers, or difficulties, of navigating one’s nostalgia for an entirely different portion of your life. “Throw me out and call it distance—I still hate it, this town you left me,” she says. ‘If you’re alone, what am I?” Then, a few lines later, “Since then, I’ve found out what I’m worth to myself.”
But “Sweetheart,” in all its dreamy, spinning glory, isn’t all about the unresolved feelings from a relationship that ended a decade ago. “I think of you way too often, looking out every window that I can,” Bear confides to her former lover.
One of the fascinating things about the structure of Means to Me, outside of the overall aesthetic Bear and Hendrix have seemingly labored over to create, is the non-liner nature of the songs. Lyrically, yes, the album tells a story, or at least, a story unfolds throughout the album’s 10 songs, but it’s a story that doesn’t begin with the album’s first track, and by the time you reach the devastating, slow burning conclusion in “The Last,” if you were looking for some kind of real ‘ending’ or resolution to Bear’s crisis—you’re going to be disappointed, because she can’t offer you one.
More than likely, there is no resolution.
The album is split in half with “Empty Bottle” and “In The Morning,” two pieces that are connected by loops of her manipulated voice, and reversed guitar strums. “In the morning, I step foot into my hometown and wonder if you’re still around,” she sings once the momentum of “In The Morning” begins to build around her. It’s not as if the story of Means to Me begins at this point, but it’s a fitting point for things to both work backwards and forwards, creating the narrative of isolation.
Bear slows the album’s pacing down slightly on the Means to Me’s second half—and with that comes an even dreamier, hazier feeling, specifically on the gorgeous, heartbreaking titular track. “Hey, guess I should have known I’d end up alone,” she states very frankly in the opening line, then, as the song careers toward its surprising ending, Bear interjects the conceit of the record through layering her vocals—“Home sweet home—(I don’t know) what it means to me.”
It feels a little strange calling Means to Me an ‘artistic triumph,’ simply because it’s such a sad record; but it is, in the end, a very real, very large statement from Bear as a singer and songwriter. The album is, of course, gorgeous, swooning, and captivating—but it’s also difficult, purely because of the emotional weight it holds. But that’s also part of what makes it such a compelling record—as Bear’s story unfolds, it’s all too easy to lose yourself in the, at times, dizzying arrangements, but also to find yourself succumbing to your own nostalgia—revisiting times, places, and people from a long time ago, and feeling the terrible bittersweet sensation that Bear has woven so tightly into the fabric of this record.
Rarely does an ‘indie rock’ record, especially in the year 2019, evoke such a visceral reaction, but Means to Me will wreck you almost every single time you listen.