Album Review: Johanna Warren - Chaotic Good
Music ‘journalism,’ or, at the very least, music writing, can be incredibly lazy.
Before it even gets into the review itself of Chaotic Good, the diverse, unpredictable, and gorgeous new LP from singer and songwriter Johanna Warren—like, in the little bolded blurb that appears underneath the artist’s name, album title, album artwork, and the review it has been benevolently bestowed by Pitchfork, Warren is compared to Elliott Smith.
Sasha Geffen, the writer responsible for criminally short review, compares Warren to Smith again in the body of the piece, as well as Hole and Liz Phair, Grouper and Julianna Barwick.
The Smith comparison is lazy, at best, but after seeing that, it’s tough to shake or disassociate yourself (and the way you listen) from the minor similarities between the two artist’s aesthetics. However, taking it on its own, Chaotic Good is a lightyear leap, musically and lyrically, from the double concept album Warren released in two parts a few years back—it is otherworldly and damn year mystical at times; it is volatile and snarls with gnashed teeth; and it is haunting in the most devastating and beautiful ways.
There are times when it is, or can be, all of those things within the same song.
Truthfully, as Chaotic Good unravels and reveals itself to you, you get the mystical, the volatile, the haunting and devastating, and the snarling, gnashed teeth, in that order, within the first five songs. Warren, to her credit, structures it so Chaotic Good eases you into the myriad things she is capable of conjuring as a singer and songwriter—so that by the time you get to “Twisted,” the album’s fifth track (and the closing track to side on on the LP) you are, more or less, acclimated to just how uneasy Warren can make you, and how unnerving and tense of a song she can perform.
Opening with “Rose Position” is not so much a bait and switch, though it is a surprising contrast once Chaotic Good continues; however, sonically, it is the most similar to Warren’s previous efforts, which even with a passing glance (or listen, as it really were), are much more restrained and even tempered, tucking themselves into a mystically, gauzy, tender folk music. And that mysticism, or fascination with a realm of spirits or the supernatural, comes through in the lyrics to “Rose Position,” as Warren somewhat pluckily sings, her voice bouncing along with the song’s light acoustic guitar driven rhythm, “What you call god I call the mysteries of the universe but what difference does it really make after all?”
It’s also within “Rose Position” that Warren showcases just what kind of lyricist she is—the kind of surprising, poetic phrases she turns, but also how effortlessly she can steer a song into dark territory. “The darkness this has brought upon me hungers for the pain like when I was young and losing teeth, which I loved to wiggle so deliciously with my tongue,” she sings in the song’s second verse, before she begins to cast a long shadow over the rest of the song: “Now I see you’re not a perfect prism—just the perfect foil for my masochism,” she sings. Then, shortly after that, “I’m tired and I feel ashamed of how I’ve let my narcissism reign untamed.”
“Rose Position” is an attention grabbing opening track, yes, and it’s one that maybe gives the wrong impression of what might be following as the rest of the album unfolds; it’s not the best (subjectively speaking) song on Chaotic Good, however, it’s worth listening to the details of how Warren plays with the way she delivers those lyrics, holding certain words longer within the rhythm, letting them all tumble around playful, though also very seriously.
I guess if you listen to only one song off of Chaotic Good, and if that one song was “Part of It,” you’d maybe get the wrong impression about Warren, and this album, an it’s also the one that closely resembles the kind of sneering acoustic angst of early Elliott Smith, so this is, like, the one time I can really see that comparison being moderately fair. Quite the change of pace from “Rose Position,” “Part of It” is a quick moving, shuffling stomp, and even as Warren’s strummed guitar strings violently cut through the muted percussion buried underneath her in the mix, she still allows her voice to not so much fall where it may, but as she did on “Rose Position,” she stretches and really pushes the way the lyrics are delivered; that, coupled with the frenetic pacing of the song, making it one of the most urgent sounding on the entire record.
The sneering angst, also, comes through very loudly in the lyrics to “Part of It.” An unapologetic ‘fuck you’ to the other half of a toxic relationship, Warren holds nothing back, and walks the tightrope between an unhealthy pining for this person, but also trying to understand that whatever there was…it’s over now. “So I light another cigarette, even though I quit,” she confesses. “‘Cuz somehow it brings me closer to you; at least that’s a part of it.” This bitter longing though, is juxtaposed against a number of brutally honest and dry statements: “I know you don’t have the time to give me the time of day. So give me the reason why you like it when I chase after you when you run away,” she sings breathlessly earlier in the song.
Perhaps the two most heartbreaking and gorgeous tracks on Chaotic Good arrive in the middle of the first side, sequenced back to back, which is almost too much to handle; there’s a musical night and day difference between them, but they are equally as devastating lyrically, both taking a real emotional toll as you listen.
There are times when Warren’s lyrics can be maybe a little too much—I hesitate to say a little too heavy handed or dramatic, but they are nevertheless, incredibly heavy. Such is the case with the opening line to “Only The Truth,” the slow, swooning, grand piano ballad that, upon my initial listen, let me know what kind of album I was in for, and what kind of album I was in for, and had me hitting the ‘add to cart’ button on Warren’s Bandcamp page for the translucent red vinyl pressing of the album.
“The wound in me picked out the knife in you,” she sings with a voice that walks the line between strong, and on the verge of an emotional meltdown, continuing throughout the song with a haunting, self-effacing, poetic tone—“The sacred well of pain that I’ve returned to time and time again to fill my vessels with the nectar-torture-poison that my thirsty muse took a liking too,” she emotes in the song’s second half.
And while this is the song that made me 100% convinced in the power of both Warren as an artist, as well as this album as a whole, there is one specific moment within the song—the moment that really made it happen. It’s less than two minutes in when Warren sings the expression ‘What more can I do?,’ and it’s the way her voice is multi-tracked and layered, just a little, to give it extra depth, and it’s the way she holds, and extends, the ‘do’ out for, like, three or four seconds, but the way it just hangs there in the air, with the music (reminiscent of sounding soft rock from the late 1970s) swirling around her—it makes a terribly heartbreaking and honest moment.
“Only The Truth” is followed by the album’s sparsest, most reserved sounding track—and even in just how fucking sad it is, both in its arranging and in Warren’s lyrics (and the way she delivers them)—it’s still surprisingly, somehow, written around an infectious melody.
“We had fun in the dark,” she sings, in a voice that barely rises above an eerie, spidery-thin whisper. “Close the door, feel the spark.” The song, inherently about an attempted connection and, eventually, rumination and obsession, spirals as Warren bends her voice throughout, bringing it lower, then up into a more fragile, higher range. “I’m living in a fantasy—it’s easier than being me,” she confesses before the breathless, unrelenting string that absolutely floored me: “I tried a little bit too hard to be myself—it turned me into something else. I wanted you to tell me that I’m good enough; I wanted you to call my bluff. I wanted you to ask me if I’m doing okay. I wanted you to stay and I wanted you to leave.”
What’s your most twisted fantasy—let’s make it real
As Chaotic Good heads into the halfway point, and the end of its first side, Warren unveils the most dissonant, unnerving, and utterly fascinating moment on the record: “Twisted.”
Over an off kilter acoustic guitar rhythm, Warren continues to build manic, frenetic energy until it reaches explosive peaks, bending and manipulating her voice, both pushing it to its absolute limits, a well as thorough shifting it artificially, in order to create a nightmarish landscape that, eventually, detonates into volatile, unnerving conclusion.
Lyrically, “Twisted” takes the pining and confused pleading found on “Bed of Nails,” and tosses it into a much darker, uncomfortable place. “Can’t you see how much I adore you?,” Warren asks within the song’s first verse. “I know I could never save you but I was born to.” It’s also in “Twisted” where Warren begins to not so much step back from the more ‘poetic’ language the first half of the album is written in, but it’s here that she begins to introduce more casual, contemporary expressions that are much easier for anyone to identify with. “You could never handle half of all that I feel. On the daily, the shit I show up for is fucking real.”
“Twisted” is a difficult listen, mostly because of the way Warren builds up her voice to a manic, fever pitch through layers of different pitches and varying amounts of distortion. It makes for a memorable conclusion to the album’s first side, as Chaotic Good enters its second half, it doesn’t exactly become an inverse of itself, though across the final fives songs, Warren explores musical similarities, while still leaving room for new ideas to keep the album moving forward until the end.
A little less ‘mystical,’ and a lot more spectral sounding, with an emphasis on a traditional acoustic, folk-based sound, side two of Chaotic Good begins with “Hole in The Wall.” Like “Twisted,” here, Warren introduces contemporary, less ‘literate’ language into her lyrics, creating an interesting juxtaposition with the song’s relatively sparse arranging. “It’s just the only way we’ve found to keep the bullshit at bay,” she sings somberly early on in the song; then later, uses the phrase ‘I peaced out,’ which is an expression that has been in my lexicon for well over a decade.
“Hole in The Wall” is also, much like many of the other moments from the album’s first side, emotionally wrought. “Hell is a state of mind and I can’t be accountable for your demise,” she sings. “But I know you’ll be fine; I’m still here for you, I just can’t take what isn’t mind”—one of the many, many lyrics on the record that lingers long after it has over; one of the lyrics you ruminate on, filing it away with all of the memories or instances it could even remotely be applied to.
Chaotic Good continues with the dizzying, cacophonic, moody, early Tori Amos-esque piano driven “Faking Amnesia,” which is full of dramatic tension and release with its huge bursts of angst, though it is not nearly as interesting as one of the tracks positioned near the album’s conclusion—the borderline country and western influenced shuffling of “Thru Yr Teeth.”
The slowest, most smoldering burning track on the album, Warren reaches down and even manages to find a slight twang in her voice, as an eerie pedal steel ripples underneath the brushed percussion and strummed acoustic guitar. Reminiscent of the kind of sad, 1970s or 1980s honky tonk slow dance (Cass McCombs perfected this kind of hat tip on 2011’s “County Line) you can imagine a darkened bar full of lonely people, fumbling through a slow dance, bathed in the neon lights of beer name brands hung above the bar.
Lyrically, of course, Warren takes the song into equally dark and lonely places. “You love me too much and it scared you to death,” she sings in the song’s opening stanza; “You danced with my shadow with such terrible grace. And now I’m alone with lightness that’s taken your place…We’ll I’ve been beating myself up for so long I forgot what it takes to have any identity outside of my worst mistakes.”
I hesitate to say that Chaotic Good is the kind of album that is front loaded with its most interesting, best, or memorable material, but that may be the case, and as it eases its way into the second side, and into its conclusion, the songs become slightly more unassuming; especially its final track, “Bones of Abandoned Futures.”
Musically, “Bones” is vastly different from how the album opened, though Warren, lyrically, returns to the mystical imagery that she used in “Rose Position”—“Expel from my body the putrid mess inside me,” she proclaims. “And call back my magic to me.” It’s another swirling, dramatic song, plunked out on the piano, with the final lines of the track being, perhaps, the most self aware: “Soothing the sting and sorrows of losing by singing with all of my might.” In an album that doesn’t so much ask a lot of difficult questions, it, in turn, also doesn’t provide a lot of answers for all of the tumultuousness it depicts. If anything, “Bones of Abandoned Futures” provides minor resolution to everything that’s happened in the nine songs leading up to it.
Chaotic Good is a bold, devastating statement; it’s sonically restless at times, and doesn’t so much ‘ask’ a lot out of a listener, but with its volatile, ever shifting nature, both musically and lyrically, Johanna Warren has made a record that is demanding of its listener, but ultimately rewarding in the torrent of emotion it pulls you through. By the time it is over, the lazy Elliott Smith (or other myriad artist) comparisons will actually be forgotten about, and the music of Johanna Warren will be more than able to stand on its own without comparison.
Chaotic Good is out now via Car Park/Wax Nine.
Chaotic Good is out now via Car Park/Wax Nine.