You Don't Owe Him Shit - My "Favorite" Songs of 2021
What I realized this year, and the same thing that I probably realize every year, around this time, is that I both really look forward to, and absolutely despise, making a list of my “favorite” songs from the last 12 months.
This is the eighth year for Anhedonic Headphones as a site, or blog, or whatever this is, and this will be the ninth time I have put together a list like this—and there are myriad circumstances as to why, but almost every time I have done this, the perimeters I use to create the list are different.
But for as different as these lists are from year to year, there are also the obvious similarities.
I look forward to doing this—coming up with a handful of songs from the year that I have liked, because it gives me the chance to reflect, and give myself reminders on what it maybe was, initially, that caused me to like a specific tune in the first place.
I despise doing this because, once I come up with the list, I begin the labor intensive process—arguably more labor going into it than its worth, of writing little blurbs about each song. There reaches a point when I am well into the blurbs, maybe after four or five of them, when I begin to wonder if doing this—making this kind of a list, yet again, for another year, is a waste of my time.
Though, I am able to push myself through those moments, and I get to a point where the list is almost complete, and I return to the place where I feel better about the process as a whole.
There are years where I am able to, for better or worse, rank the songs in a descending numerical order; there are the years, most noticeably the two years I was employed as a news writer for the Northfield News, where I was completely in over my head with the demands of my job, and sinking into what, at the time, was a pretty serious depression—a depression which prevented me from putting as much time, or effort, into wrapping up my year “in music.”
In 2014, only a few months into my job at the newspaper, I found I was not in the frame of mind to name 10 songs, let alone rank them, so the conceit I used was to select my “favorite song,” my “favorite song,” and the song that was the most “important” to me.
Last year, somehow more ambitious than I had been in years, I made three lists: my favorite cover songs of the year, my favorite “pop songs,” and then my “favorite songs” (almost all of them absolutely devastating, emotionally speaking) of 2020.
What kind of metrics do you use when making a list like this? And, depending on how many songs have found their way into your shortlist, how do you rank them with any kind of accuracy after a certain point—how is the, say, song you’ve placed at number seven on the list just a few points “better” than the song that you placed at number 10?
Like every year, even before I started writing about music analytically—when I was just someone who really liked listening, or when I briefly worked in radio—I listened to a lot of music in 2021. Some of it I gave myself the opportunity to write about; some of it I was, for whatever reason, unable to.
And after coming up with a list of songs I would deem my “favorites” for this year, I realized I was in a place where I would be unable to rank them thoughtfully—the list, this year, is an amalgamation of sorts, pulling different elements from the ways lists in past years were compiled. How did a song make me feel—but more importantly is why did it make me feel that way? Is it a bop, or a banger? Did it make me feel seen and attacked?
At year’s end, how personally, or emotionally, impactful was it for me?
I usually feel empowered to take a few liberties with these lists, and how they look at the end—this is a list of 18. There are 15 that I could safely name as my favorite, for whatever reason, songs of 2021—a mix of both pure pop perfection, and songs that absolutely eviscerated me emotionally, placed in alphabetical order by song title.
The other three are, for whatever reason, the ones that were the most impactful—the ones that were able to answer the aforementioned questions.
“Silk Chiffon” by MUNA featuring Phoebe Bridgers
When she turns ‘round halfway down the aisle with that ‘You’re on camera’ smile—like she wants to try me on…
The shortest take I can give on “Silk Chiffon” is this—this song is more fun than legally allowable. No pop song should be this perfect—and if a pop song is this perfect, we, as a society, are probably undeserving of it.
There are a cavalcade of genres and descriptions mentioned on MUNA’s Wikipedia entry—“dark pop,” for example, or “hooky electronic pop”; and I while would argue that one of those is a little perplexing—the other is more or less accurate.
Parting ways with the major label they had released two full-lengths and an EP via since forming in 2013, the co-sign from Phoebe Bridgers—both in signing to the growing roster of her Saddest Factory imprint, as well as her featured appearance on “Silk Chiffon,” has, perhaps, introduced MUNA to a larger audience that might not have been familiar with their previous efforts—full disclosure, I am one of those people.
Shimmering, glitchy, exuberant, and more infectious than any song should ever be, “Silk Chiffon” seamlessly weaves together a little bit of an indie rock edge, or snarl (e.g. the electric guitar that comes in during the second verse), while remaining completely committed to an unwavering pop sensibility in the way the song is structured.
“Silk Chiffon” rarely lets up on its momentum—the song’s short verses are breezy, written with just enough of the flirty, sapphic narrative to get the listener hooked, but those verses serve as the vessel that brings the listener into both the song’s “pre-chorus,” with the hypnotic utterance of the phrase, “Life’s so fun, life’s so fun,” then directly into the chorus itself—a gigantic shout along, constructed with an enormous and intentional pause in between the words “Silk” and “Chiffon.”
Part of me wants to tell you that I do not actively seek out, or listen to a lot of music that I would, subjectively or anecdotally, consider to be “fun”; however, the amount of “girl pop” I have immersed myself in over the last two years and change is enough evidence to the contrary. I might, as an extremely depressed individual, disagree with MUNA vocalist Katie Gavin, when she coos “Life’s so fun, life’s so fun,” but I understand, as best as I am able, the sentiment—“Silk Chiffon” is an extraordinarily rare moment of pure pop perfection; the kind of tune that I have yet to grow tired of hearing (it’s doubtful I will.) I still feel the same burst of excitement during its jittery, skittering intro, and still want to, for three minutes, believe what Gavin and Bridgers are trying to convince me—that life really is so fun.
I still want to find my way onto a dance floor, get absolutely lost in the charisma and energy the song never seems to run out of, and forget about everything that I am constantly trying to outrun, all while flailing wildly in time.
“Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo
God, I’m so blue, know we’re through—but I still fuckin’ love you, babe…
At no point in the last 11 months, since hearing Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout single “Driver’s License” for the first time, did I think that I would grow tired of it—released within the first week of January, 2021, I was completely certain it would be a song I would still be thinking about at year’s end.
That it would be a song I would consider to be truly one of the most outstanding of the year.
“Driver’s License” was, and still is, representative of Rodrigo’s talent—a small glimpse of what was to come within the context of the album, asserting herself almost instantly as an absolute force in pop music right from the rip.
The reason the song works, outside of the massive heights it soars to the further it goes, is that it takes a right of passage for a teenager—something seemingly as banal as getting a driver’s license—and juxtaposes it against a different kind of right of passage for a teenager—a messy breakup. It’s dramatic—so dramatic—and in the hands of a less confident performer, or a less bombastic, fascinating arrangement (thanks to Rodrigo’s collaborator Dan Nigro), it might not have worked. But there is never a point, from the moment it starts, to the moment she practically whispers the song’s final words, does it ever falter—Rodrigo is completely earnest in how she delivers it.
Nearly a year after it was released, “Driver’s License” remains as thrilling and heartbreaking as it was the first time I heard it—the kind of beautiful, rare pop ballad that is accessible and memorable, yes, but more importantly, unrelenting in the emotional weight it still carries today.
“Thumbs”/“Thumbs Again” by Lucy Dacus
I don’t know how you keep smiling…
I don’t remember the context, but there was a recent conversation I was having with my best friend, and the subject of my father came up.
“Have you heard from him recently,” she asked; then, without missing a single beat, “Or ever?”
Then she started to laugh—a kind of backpedaling, nervous laughter, worried she had overstepped, or that her joke was in poor taste.
I, too, was laughing, and I assured her that the joke was not in in poor taste at all—that she hadn’t overstepped anything.
Her joke, if anything, was accurate, and completely warranted.
I watched Lucy Dacus, alone onstage, perform an early iteration of what would go on to become “Thumbs” at the tail end of 2018 while she was touring with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker. She politely asked the members of the audience not to record the song on their phones while she performed—as she, herself, had not recorded it yet. The mythology around the song continued to grow over the next few years—its popularity among her fans inspired a Twitter account that asked, and answered, only one question—“Has Lucy released ‘Thumbs’ yet?”
The answer, for the longest time, was no, until mysterious VHS cassettes began arriving in mailboxes at the end of February and beginning of March—including, of all mailboxes, my own. The cassettes, when played, contained a blue screen, with the boxy, white icon of a recorded video tape in the center—the audio on the cassette was a spectral, haunting, intense studio recording of “Thumbs.”
“Has Lucy released ‘Thumbs’ yet?”
One day, the answer was, “No, but I think we’re close.”
“Thumbs” is a difficult song—both for Dacus, as well as for me.
For Dacus, it’s one of her most inherently personal—so personal and so emotionally charged that when it came time to record it for her second full-length album, Home Video, she struggled with how, exactly, it should be arranged—going on to record it twice: once, as heard in advance of the album’s release, with eerie, chilling synthesizers creating the bed that her narrative rests upon; then, months later, releasing “Thumbs Again,” with more instrumentation—guitars and percussion—giving the song a little more discernible rhythm, or at the very least, some clearer direction.
“Thumbs” is a difficult song—both for Dacus, as well as for me.
For me, because within Dacus’ visceral and vivid narrative of accompanying a college friend to an unplanned meeting with an estranged, deadbeat father, I am reminded of the fractured, borderline non-existent relationship I have with my own estranged, deadbeat father.
“Have you heard from him recently—or ever?”
The answer is almost always no.
“Thumbs” is a difficult song—both for Dacus, as well as for me.
For me, because what I have spent the better part of the last nine months trying to forget, yet in the end, truly being unable to, is that three days after the VHS cassette of “Thumbs,” with “Lucy Dacus” as the name on the return address, is crammed into my mailbox, a member of my family passes away. And that connection—the connection to sitting on the floor of my living room, transfixed by the blue screen on the television, the harrowing music playing through the speakers, and the terrible, terrible anxiety and dread that I felt because I knew that the end, this end, was on the horizon, and I had no way of stopping it.
It was a connection that I was, for a little while anyway, able to sever, or at least put aside, until Dacus released Home Video in June, and in sitting down to analytically listen to the album, and write about it, it was a connection impossible for me to avoid.
Rarely, if ever, does a song impact me on so many different personal levels the way that “Thumbs” has done—for that fact alone, it is simply unforgettable. Simply too good, and entirely too powerful to buckle under the pressure of itself and its compelling, layered back story, there are phrase turns here—specifically the way Dacus plays with the tension and release of specific lyrics in tandem with the arranging, like the torrential build up in the “Thumbs Again” iteration of the song, coming off of the devastating line, “I don’t know how you keep smiling,” and into breathless, urgent way she sings the final verse—“I wanna take your face between my hands and say, ‘You two are connected by a pure coincidence. Bound to him by blood, but baby, it’s all relative. You’ve been in his fist ever since you were a kid…”
Rarely, if ever, does a song impact me on so many different personal levels—cutting through to the core of one of them in a single lyric.
Have you heard from him lately—or ever?
You don’t owe him shit, even if he said you did.
* * *
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” by Taylor Swift
I might be okay, but I’m not fine at all
Often, there are myriad reasons why I might not write a review on a specific album around the time of its release.
A lot of it has to do with how I am able to balance the labor that goes into writing the kind of pieces I have found myself writing as of late, with where I am emotionally—am I just simply too depressed to sit down and make the effort, despite an interest in doing so.
Other times, I am just overwhelmed. Like, the sheer amount of music released in a given year is a lot—more than I am feasibly able to write about with the time kind of time and thoughtfulness I require of myself when my fingers begin gracing the keyboard. But, also, like, an album in question can, specifically be too much, and the very notion of sitting down and figuring out where to start can become extremely daunting.
And even with the amount of time I spent listening to, reflecting on, and writing about Taylor Swift in 2020, I found that when Swift released the “Taylor’s Version”s of both Fearless and Red this year (April and November, respectively), I wanted to sit down with them, dissect the subtle nuances between these iterations of the albums and their originally recorded counterparts, and unpack what Swift’s plan to re-record her first seven albums so that she owned the master recordings meant within a larger picture; but as I stared down the track list of Fearless, 26 songs total, clocking in at an hour and 45 minutes, or Red, 30 tracks, spanning well over two hours—it was all just too intimidating and overwhelming for me to wrap my brain around in any kind of analytical way.
And, honestly, giving any kind of critical thought to the sprawling 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” nestled at the very end of Red (Taylor’s Version)’s second disc, is similarly intimidating.
A 10-minute song is a big ask—for any artist making music in any genre.
It’s a lot of song, and puts a lot of pressure on the relationship between the artist and the audience. Like, the audience has to have the patience to sit with something of that length; and the performer has to make something compelling enough, or interesting enough, to keep the listener’s attention for longer than an “average” song usually is.
Originally written while Swift was on tour in support of Speak Now, the earliest drafts of the song were paired down to the five minute and change version she recorded for Red with the help of songwriter Liz Rose, with whom Swift had collaborated on some of her earliest and twangiest successes. Never released as a single from Red, the album that marked the very noticeable shift from Swift the country singer to Swift the pop star, “All Too Well,” before now, seems like it would fall somewhere between being a Swift “deep cut,” and a longtime fan favorite.
The most noticeable difference, of course, between the original version of “All Too Well,” and its updated “Taylor’s Version” is the growth of the last decade in Swift’s voice—it’s actually kind of startling to listen to these two songs back to back to hear how absolutely young she sounds in 2012, and how much more command she has with her voice, and how much more depth it has in her voice in 2021.
And the thing, I think, that is among the most impressive, or at least noteworthy, about the 10-minute iteration of “All Too Well” is that it isn’t just an unedited version of something that had been cut down as a time saving measure—no; the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is its own song, right down to subtle differences in instrumentation and arranging. It is unrelenting and restless in how it delivers Swift’s narrative, barely giving herself room to come up for air from the story she’s telling—telling it all, this time—allowing the pacing and momentum to shift until it naturally finds its way into a haunting, hypnotic epilogue that conjures imagery of the first snowfall of the year, with Swift’s overlapping, circling vocals quietly singing, “I was there, I was there, it was rare, you remember it.”
And the thing, I think, that is, in fact, the most impressive, is this could have all buckled under the unbearable weight of its own mythology—but it never does. It never even comes close.
From the reserved way it begins, to the way its swirling ending quietly fades into the distance, Swift remains in complete control of the song, the way the pieces of it all finally fit together now, and the narrative that it builds from the relationship it deconstructs—she pulls it off with a seemingly effortless grace and charm—writing this kind of song couldn’t be an easy feat and setting it to 10-minutes of music was certainly a challenge, but at no point are you looking at your watch to check how much time has passed. It never feels like 10-minutes. It never feels like work, or a chore, to sit with. It’s that gripping of a ride.
It is that good.
Long alleged to be about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, “All Too Well (10-Minute Version),” is breathless and unflinching in the way it provides Swift the opportunity to give greater detail into the imagery of the song, and recalls very specific, vivid fragments of her relationship, juxtaposing them with the wrenching heartbreak she felt in the aftermath.
Containing some surprising phrase turns from Swift, like “…Weepin’ in a party bathroom, some access asking’ me what happened—you. That’s what happened. You,” “I was never good at telling’ jokes, but the punch line goes, ‘I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age,’” or the question posed near the song’s end that never receives an answer—“Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?”
In the song’s epilogue, Swift’s repetition of the expression “I was there” becomes like a mantra, or at least, a reminder to herself—a way to delay the erasure of this, albeit painful, relationship.
She was there, she asserts, and now we are too.
“Awake For The Sunrise” by Flock of Dimes
And I deserve it—the very worst of it. I deserve it. I know I do.
It is, perhaps, unintentional, or at least just a coincidence, but you can trace a faint connection between one of the lyrics in “Awake For The Sunrise,” the penultimate track on Jenn Wasner’s second full-length outing released under her Flock of Dimes moniker, and a line she penned a decade ago on “Doubt,” the closing track on Civilian, the third, and break through album, she recorded with her band Wye Oak.
“If you should doubt my heart,” she sang in 2011, her voice low and anguished. “Remember this—that I would lie to you if I believed it was right to do.”
The connection, or at least the contrast, comes in the second verse to “Awake For The Sunrise.” “I didn’t think I was a terrible liar,” Wasner confesses now, a decade later. “But I am when I need it most.”
Head of Roses is more than just a breakup album, or a “pandemic album”—I mean, yes, both the state of the world since the beginning of 2020, and the dissolution of Wasner’s romantic relationship shortly before the world went into a lockdown play huge roles in the creation of the record, but it is also an album about personal dualities, and the difficulties of finding, and accepting as much as you are able, one’s self.
“Awake For The Sunrise” is among the album’s most lyrically straightforward—unabashedly honest, and full of a heightened regret and self-deprecation that is so severe, it may never recede with them. Structured around acoustic guitar strums and a drum machine beat that eventually gives way to live percussion and some additional instrumentation, the song relies heavily on Wasner’s smoky vocals, and the lyrics—strung together in an infectious melody that is so light that it almost distracts from the harrowing bleakness of the heart of the song. “Hope is still keeping my head above water ’til the moment before I choke,” she sings in the song’s second chorus, then perhaps the most difficult lyrics to hear arriving shortly after that—“I’d rather feel the full wrath of destruction than remember the things I’ve done,” and “And I deserve it—the very worst of it. I deserve it. I know I do.”
And, yes, some of those lyrics have lingered with me since the very first time I sat down with this album, and this song, specifically, knocked the wind out of me, but it is a line that Wasner uses at the end of “Awake For The Sunrise”’s first chorus that is the one that maybe resonates the most now as the year is coming to an end. There is, of course, the idea of duality that runs through the entire album—“I only wanted to know you better,” she sings. “I only thought that I knew you best.” And the question that isn’t answered is this—who is the “you” she is addressing? Is it the partner she is no longer involved with? Or is it a stark addressing to the self?
“Big Dipper” by Kississippi
I know it ain’t easy to love me…
Perhaps it is partially in jest, and perhaps partially in earnest, but around the time of the release of Mood Ring, Kississippi’s founder and front woman Zoe Reynolds referred to her band as being “Jimmy Eat World for Taylor Swift fans.”
This description, even if it was said to get a laugh, makes a lot of sense—a merging of emotional, guitar driven music with equally, if not more emotional pop.
After sitting with Mood Ring for months, and returning to it regularly still, I’m convinced there is an alternate universe out there where Kississippi is not a charming indie pop outfit, but rather, a marquee name with singles played on Top 40 radio—Reynolds’ songwriting, especially when she has leaned so heavily into making bright, rollicking pop music, is just that good.
Sequenced as the penultimate track on Mood Ring, “Big Dipper” finds the unlikely, yet very likely, space where the Venn diagram of Taylor Swift and Jimmy Eat World intersect—a beautiful, heartbreaking, simmering ballad that manages to convey a visceral sense of drama while remaining wildly infectious. This balance, certainly not an easy one to strike, appears to sound effortless as Reynolds plays with the sense of tension and release—somber piano, skittering percussion, and glitchy, swirling synths underscore her effacing, regretful lyrics.
And within the boundaries of what you might refer to as “pop music,” I think rarely, if ever, at least in recent memory, do you hear not even what I would call a “non-traditional love song,” let alone a song that, even in a single passing lyric, touches on the very notion of how difficult love is. This year, though, there were two—“Traitor,” by Olivia Rodrigo, clearly not a love song at all, really, by the title alone, but she surprisingly included the very honest line, “I loved you at your worst.”
“There’s no need to say sorry, so you say to me,” Reynolds begins in a low voice, with a minimalistic pulsing beat, and warm piano chords underneath her as “Big Dipper” opens. “But I know it ain’t easy to love me,” she confesses. “It’s harder now to breathe.”
And more than anything else—more than the frisson created by the slow, steady build of the song’s instrumentation; more than the desperate pleading and soul-searching Reynolds reaches as she gets further into the lyrics; more than the infectious melody and lingering heartbreak of the song’s chorus—“We don’t plan these things; no, they happen with time”; more than anything else, it’s that one line, uttered not offhandedly, but used in two different places as a means to get from the snapshot of the dissolution of a relationship into the confusion that comes in its wake—“I know it ain’t easy to love me,” is the kind of line that cutting, reflective lyric that causes “Big Dipper” to be a song worthy of returning to, regardless of how hard it might be to continually face down the difficult to love parts of yourself that you see reflected in the song’s shimmering soundscape.
“Crying in Public” by Madi Diaz
I am strong, but it’s stronger than I am right now
As a songwriter for both herself, and others, the thing that is clear the more you sit with Madi Diaz’s History of A Feeling, an album inspired by both a break up and a period of grief and confusion that came after, is that she’s more than a songwriter—she is a storyteller.
Throughout the album’s first half, her choice of language and the imagery she uses create vivid, honest, fragile portraits of the human experience—and perhaps the place where she is the most honest, and most fragile is on “Crying in Public.”
Diaz has an undeniably beautiful voice—you can hear that almost immediately with how graceful it sounds when she sings, “Fuck you—fuck that,” in History’s brief opening track, “Rage.” But, outside of the very notion of publicly crying, the thing that has stuck with me about this song is how she, as much as she is comfortable doing, loses control of her voice during the song’s chorus, and lets go of some of that beauty, allowing it to grow slightly dissonant. And in doing so, there is a very real truth to be found within the story she’s telling.
And in those moments, where Diaz lets go and belts out the line, “I don’t want to be crying in public; but here I am, crying in public,” there is a slight, self-deprecating sense of humor in just how aware she is, yes, but more than that, it’s the desperation and exhaustion that I hear more than anything else.
“Crying in Public” unfolds through a series of fragments or snapshots of places Diaz might find herself—a 24-hour grocery store, a party after having too much to drink, the train, a friend’s couch—all of these places where, unexpectedly, might be overcome with a terrible wave of sadness. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? These waves—sometimes we know when it’s coming, but there are moments when it is, honestly, inconvenient, but also entirely unexpected. And that’s why “Crying in Public,” even in its sparse arrangement, is so poignant—Diaz gives a name to these moments where we are overcome, and the volatile mix of emotions that many of us are often just trying to make it through the day without upsetting the balance of.
“End of The World” by Sydney Sprague
I just think the worst, and my body’s breaking down
There’s a question that Sydney Sprague asks at the beginning of the song “End of The World,” and she never answers it—maybe it’s rhetorical, or maybe, in the frenetic, near-stream of conscious way she’s diving headfirst into the lyrics, she just doesn’t have the time to wait for a response from anyone.
This isn’t about the question though—not to negate it, however. It is an important one—one that somebody might tweet, then put “Asking for a friend” after it, as a joke to distract, slightly, from the seriousness of it.
But this is about what Sprague immediately after the question—“I don’t know what’s going on with me lately.”
And it’s a difficult place to find yourself in, emotionally, mentally—whatever you want to call it, where you are able to take a step back from yourself, for even just a moment, and acknowledge what you have maybe been trying to avoid, or outrun, and have been failing to do so—that something is wrong.
The closing track on Sprague’s debut full-length, “End of The World” pulls its title from the name of the album itself—Maybe I Will See You at The End of The World, an eerie phrase, unintentionally foretelling when she wrote and recorded the album at the beginning of 2020, unaware of what, exactly, was literally around the corner.
Sprague, in her lyrics on this album, yes, as well as in the press around the album’s release, has been very open about her own anxieties, and her awareness of mortality, which are among the reasons why “End of The World” was a song that had such an important, personal resonance with me this year.
Musically, “End of The World” is set across Sprague’s strummed electric guitar, with razor sharp percussion coming in once the song reaches its point of lift off as the second verse begins—coupled with an undercurrent of glitchy atmospherics that run throughout, creating a sense of dread for a future that might not exist. And it isn’t the shortest song on the record (though it is very close to being that), but it is the song where Sprague says so much, which such a sense of immediacy, in a small window of time.
And there are a lot of layers to what it is like living with debilitating depression—one of the things that I have been guilty of overlooking is, in just how insular it makes you, it becomes difficult to remain aware of how it is impacting your relationship with others; your interactions with others.
Because even if you are sinking further, and further down into a personal abyss, and even if you might have an idea of ways you might be inadvertently becoming difficult to be around, or to work with, there reaches a point where you are truthfully too depressed to articulate how hard everything has become for you, how how much you are struggling—the other side of that is the point where somebody else—a co-worker, a romantic partner, whoever—might have already lost their temper, or their patience with you.
There is the point where somebody else just might not understand—or doesn’t want to.
“And you don’t know how to talk to me,” Sprague reflects. “Maybe that’s alright, ‘cause I don’t need to be seen.”
A nearly unrelenting and extremely personal reflection on the disconnections and fragility of the human condition, “End of The World” is staggering and breathtaking in how its arranged; a visceral, difficult, beautiful narrative on the tension from pushing someone away, trying to desperately pull them back to you, and the space that begins to form in between.
“Go Slowly” by Jodi
Then you’re holed up in the basement, crying to the beat
There is something unassuming, at first, to “Go Slowly”—and I think that is, at least in part, due to the song’s gentle nature, both musically, and how Nick Levine delivers the song’s thoughtful lyrics.
However, the longer you sit with “Go Slowly,” the second track of of Blue Heron, the debut full length from Levine’s solo project Jodi, it becomes less unassuming, and entirely more powerful and resonant, both through the way Levine writes, and the overall feeling the song’s instrumentation gives it.
There is a palpable sense of longing, or yearning, in “Go Slowly,” from almost the moment Levine opens their mouth, with a subtle sense of humor tucked into the first line—“Does this party stress you out? Can’t stand talking about yourself? What have I been up to? Well….can’t recall….” But from this bit of awkward small talk at a party, Levine pulls back to reveal, as much as they are willing to, that there is a history between the song’s protagonist and this other person.
“The other day, I saw your picture on the wall,” Levine continues. “But things are going well—I’ve just been keeping to myself. I’ll try to get it back to you in the fall. Got some words to write—just working through it all.”
They play a lot of “Go Slowly” close to the chest, in terms of give away just enough to craft a fragmented narrative that grows even more enigmatic within the second verse, which is also where Levine’s humor—a little sad, a little dark, and a little honest—appears again.
“Everyone’s a salesman when you’re done,” they sing, almost as an aside or a throwaway, before getting to the final, very vivid line of the song—“Then you’re hold up in the basement, crying to the beat.”
Levine refers to Jodi’s genre as “queer country,” and with their pedal steel work, there is a twang to be found throughout Blue Heron; but through using primarily acoustic instruments in a majority of the songs—“Go Slowly” included, and through the pristine attention to detail in the album’s production, there is a very warm, rich indie-leaning folk feeling to many of the tunes. It’s that feeling, a contrast between the robust and the sparse, that makes “Go Slowly” as powerful, and as gorgeous as it is, creating a captivating sense of drama in the way the music swells during the song’s refrain, where Levine simply asks, “Can we go slowly?,” allowing their words to be held onto, and then scattered across the music.
And in that wistfulness, there is a moment created—sweeping, grand, devastating in its beauty—and familiar, in a sense, like watching the autumn leaves swirling through a chilled breeze. And it’s a fleeting moment that Levine creates on “Go Slowly,” but it’s one that you wish would last just a little bit longer before it slips away.
“Good Girls” by CHVRCHES
I want to know that feeling
To my knowledge, up until I had caught portions of “How Not to Drown,” two different times on the radio earlier this year—and in both instances, reacted by saying, “Hey I like this,” and pulling out my phone to identify the artist on Shazam (the second time this happened I felt kind of foolish), but up to that point, I don’t believe I had ever listened to the band CHVRCHES.
Perhaps the opportunity just never presented itself—I do not often listen to the radio, and I had not actively sought out any of the band’s previous material; and perhaps it was their name—stylized so heavily with a “V” replacing the “U,” and everything capitalized, that had me wondering what, exactly, their deal was.
I hadn’t realized it, and maybe it isn’t the case with their previous three full-length efforts, but the band’s most recent album, Screen Violence—a product of remote recording due to the pandemic—is full of incredibly bombastic, exaggerated, and often “bright” sounding pop music, smartly juxtaposed against lyrics that are also often bombastic and exaggerated, but rarely, if ever, bright.
Describing “Good Girls,” one of the advance singles released from Screen Violence, as sounding “enormous” simply isn't doing the song, and its power, justice. Pop music—in any form, both Top 40, as well as the kind of “indie pop” like CHVRCHES that you’ll hear on public radio—rarely scales these kinds of heights and then goes on to surpass them. This song, like so many on the record, is absolutely terrifying in just how gigantic and just how fucking good it is.
“Good Girls,” both lyrically and musically, is an empowering song—and I am truly uncertain if either of them would work as effectively without the other, so the song is built around this symbiotic relationship of the tremendous instrumentation propelling CHVRCHES’ frontwoman Lauren Mayberry’s lyricism and delivery forward, and in turn, the theatricality and enthusiasm she sings with at times adds to the flair of the glitchy, twinkling, synthesizers and dreamy, woozy guitar riff that comes in near the end.
“Killing your idols is a chore, and it’s such a fucking bore,” Mayberry deadpans in the song’s opening line. “But we don’t need them anymore.” In part, a reflection on the idea of “cancel culture,” and how one—specifically, a woman—can try to reconcile with the notion of “male heroes doing terrible things.”
“I was just thinking about the time and energy we’ve spent being stressed about that and trying to figure out how to live with that,” she explained in an Apple Music interview. “We don’t spend time worrying about the people who are the subject of the behavior.”
Stopping short of being a feminist rallying cry, and politicized just enough to get her point across, “Good Girls” takes that nervy tension, frustration, and anger to the dance floor, flailing it out to the music, unrelenting in how it wildly it spins.
“Haiku For Everything You Love and Miss” by Anika Pyle
Another day to wish there were no more days here—somehow hold on
The hard truth of the titular phrase in “Haiku For Everything You Love and Miss” is something Anika Pyle builds a mantra out of—repeated enough times to become lulling and hypnotic, but difficult to hear, and face, so as you are pulled further and further into the warmth of the song, you are, in tandem, pulled further into emotions you might be apprehensive about sitting with.
“Everything you loved and miss will never be the same as it was when you loved it,” Pyle sings, slowly, somberly, over a dusty drum machine thump and a cavernous, mournful keyboard tone, allowing the phrase to build in momentum, becoming something larger than itself, or at least, the way it’s used in this song.
Throughout Pyle’s Wild River, the first album she’s released under her own name, there are both literal and figurative uses of poetry, or poetic language. The record itself pulls together songs and spoken word pieces, united through the themes of grief, loss, and personal reflection—and within the songs included on Wild River, Pyle writes with the very literate, thoughtful, and precise voice of a poet.
“Haiku” takes some minor artistic liberties with the very notion of a haiku as a form of poetic expression—in listening to the way she sings, you may not hear it, but in seeing the lyrics written out, the lyrics are broken up in to the traditional five syllable, seven syllable, then five again structure—a remarkable command in restraint and language, with Pyle being to convey all she wanted to within those boundaries.
The phrase turns throughout “Haiku,” are in a word, harrowing—“Everyday I think this bed is a rented bed—I do not belong here,” Pyle begins, following it with “The bed herself is a fertile place for comfort, but I am barren.”
Or, the stark honest that comes in shortly before arriving at at the first instance of the titular mantra—“Another day to wish there were no more days here—somehow hold on.”
It is more, though, than just Pyle’s unabashedly personal and reflective lyrics, or the way she has specifically arranged the lyrics so they tumble out just so into the music—it is the music itself, or at least, somewhat small details within the relatively sparse arranging that make the song as impactful, overall, as it is—like the additional, icy drum machine blip that arrives with, like, around a minute left, popping up in the spaces in between the low, rumbling rhythm of the bass drum that’s been keeping the momentum of the song going since the beginning; or the brief flare of drama Pyle indulges herself with at the very end of “Haiku,” where the instrumentation drops out a few seconds before the song concludes, leaving Pyle’s voice alone to deliver the last “loved it,” her voice cloaked in reverb, echoing out slightly into the silence at the end of the album’s first half, creating a breathless conclusion to a difficult, personal, beautiful, and plaintive song.
“Immune” by Jensen McRae
As we leave I turn to you and ask how it feels to be immune—and you know what I mean a bit too much
It speaks volumes of Jensen McRae’s capabilities as a singer and songwriter to turn something that, originally, was a joke, and make it into something that is devastating in both its beauty and in its melancholy.
Among the songs selected for inclusion on her Who Hurt You? EP, “Immune,” at the beginning of 2021, began as a one-off tweet from McRae—“In 2023, Phoebe Bridgers is gonna drop her third album, and the opening track will be about hooking up in the car while waiting in line to get vaccinated at Dodger Stadium, and it’s gonna make me cry.”
The next day, in a short clip, she shared a “preemptive cover” of what said Phoebe Bridgers’ song might sound like—the lyrics within that clip became the first verse to what would on to become the song “Immune,” which McRae quickly went to work turning into a legitimate, full-length song, recorded with producer Columbus Smith (also known as Rahik), who punctuates the song’s most dramatic moments with stirring string accompaniments.
The observational nature of the song’s verses, and the extremely dry, and often cutting, sense of humor McRae wrote the song in is, yes, Bridgers-esq, but McRae, as a singer, is able to give “Immune” the chance to transcend being just a fleeting internet joke thing, and turn it into something extraordinarily poignant.
Even with how plain, at times, it seems like the lyrics are, “Immune” is structured to reveal itself at a very deliberate pace, cleverly and slowly giving the listener more of the narrative the further along the song gets—and the more times you listen, and immerse yourself in the story, it becomes impressively clear just how descriptive of a song it is, with both how McRae effortlessly sets the location, but more importantly, creates an uneasy tone, and the unspoken, and perhaps unrealized tension that forms between the song’s two protagonists.
But what makes the song work, or at the very least, pushes it to the place where it needed to be in order for it to be as impactful as it is, is McRae’s voice—the enormous power it has when she opens up and holds a note, juxtaposing something fragile with something soulful. The way she controls her voice during “Immune”’s verses is not so much misleading, but McRae is hushed, delivering things in a lower, less bombastic register, walking the line between speaking the lyrics and singing them. When the song arrives at its chorus though, is when I was stopped in my tracks and floored by how huge her voice can be come and how raw it can sound—“What will we say to each other when the needle goes in?,” she asks, holding and bending the “in” until it seems like she is completely out of breath, before throwing herself into the next line—“What will we be to each other if the world doesn’t end?”
McRae leaves those questions unanswered—because there are no easy answers at the end of “Immune,” just a lingering, though beautiful, sense of sadness and uncertainty, for both the song’s characters, but also for world at large—still in this moment where we are unsure what comes next.
“Luster” by Twin Oaks
I’m on repeat like a broken record, writing you into everything
In trying to think how to describe “Luster,” there was one expression that came to mind.
To my knowledge, I’ve never heard anything off of it, but when I was a teenager, and could often be found browsing the CDs for sale in department stores like Shop-Ko or Wal-Mart, I remember seeing, filed in with the “Ms,” a copy of two of Sarah McLachlan’s third album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.
Evocative in all it could mean, and its deliberate choice using a word that implies a slight difficulty in remaining graceful, it was the only phrase I could think of that could accurately, if not ambiguously, describe this song.
A fumbling towards ecstasy.
I known very little about the group Twin Oaks, and there is a part of me interested in playing against type and keeping it that way—not doing my usual deep dive into a back catalog, or finding every tidbit of information I can about an artist or group. There is a part of me here that just wants the minimum needed, letting the gravity of the song, and the moment that it creates, stand on its own.
I do know Twin Oaks is primarily a duo—instrumentalist Aaron Domingo and vocalist Lauren Brown, and based on what I can glean from both “Luster,” as well as the other little bit of music I have heard from the group, sonically, they operate in the gauzy, introspective spaces that form between shoegaze and indie folk—genres where it is admittedly difficult to bridge the gaps. In the world I am sure there are a number of artists trying, but few can do it well. If “Luster” is any indication, Twin Oaks is one of the rare instances of a confident group that’s able to blend the two aesthetics with grace and beauty.
I hesitate to say that, structurally, “Luster” is all tension with no release, but as the song unfolds (or fumbles, as it were), there are places where, perhaps, one would anticipate the song would blast off, or detonate in some way—for, like, say, live percussion to come thundering down at some point, mid-way through, or for more raucous instrumentation to be folded into the mix some how, punctuating the song’s continual emotional build up.
Twin Oaks never give that release though.
Is there a rhythm buried somewhere in “Luster”? Probably—it’s a song that isn’t directionless, and it doesn’t meander, but it moves at its own very deliberate place—dreamy and swaying, at times getting a little caught up itself, and the woozy, gorgeous momentum of Domingo’s distended electric guitar playing—really only one of two instruments you hear on “Luster,” with the other being a piano that arrives in the second verse.
And I don’t think there is a desperation to Brown’s lyrics, or the way she sings them, but there is a yearning. “I’m in too deep—losing my body, losing my sleep,” she sings in the song’s chorus. “And for what it’s worth, a luster in the wind—feel alive again.” Is “Luster” a song about love; or, at the very least, a song about a romantic partner? There are implications it is, but Brown’s use of fragmented images doesn’t make it clear. It is, in the end, about the feeling it creates—a slow burning, brief, powerful, and stunning moment where something beguiling and something cacophonic fumble together to create something that, even after the song has ended, still lingers like a specter.
“Moving Cars” by Laura Stevenson
And if I told you that I needed it to end…
I think the first time that I really acknowledged when a song made me feel “seen” or “attacked” or a little bit of both would have been when, two years ago, I immersed myself in Lana Del Ray’s Norman Fucking Rockwell—an album that, right from the rip, and almost all the way until its final, pensive moments, it is filled with countless examples of when Elizabeth Grant had me feeling some type of way.
Those feelings—seen, or attacked, or both, were metrics that I might have unconsciously used prior to then, when sitting down at year’s end to reflect on what songs, or albums, were my “favorites” in a year. But 2019 was the first time that I really said, out loud, why some songs were exponentially more emotionally impactful than others—specifically on a more personal level.
There is something graceful yet stark about “Moving Cars,” the third song on Laura Stevenson’s self-titled album, and it doesn’t so much take your breath away, but causes you to hold it—both because of the fragile, skeletal nature with which the song is arranged that shouldn’t be disturbed or disrupted; but mostly because from the moment it begins, with Stevenson’s voice and a delicately plucked acoustic guitar, she has you—she has your complete attention, and you aren’t holding your breath out of fear, or suspense; no, it’s because that you cannot help but be completely invested in the personal narrative she has created within the song.
At its core, Laura Stevenson is an album that, throughout, offers reflections of Stevenson’s anxieties about her self-worth—pregnant at the time of writing and recording the album near the end of 2019, she worries about being a good enough parent, and on “Moving Cars,” she wonders, among other things, if she’s a good enough friend.
There is a poetic nature to the way Stevenson strings the lyrics, and her phrasing, along in “Moving Cars,” letting the words tumble out of her mouth at just the right time underneath the steady rhythm of her acoustic guitar, minimal atmospheric accompaniment that arrives midway through, and a borderline whimsical Rhodes solo before the final verse. Poetic in the sense that the conceit of the song is very easy to identify, but it’s the images she builds up around it that are dressed up with more vague and hyper-literate usage of language that is often extremely poignant and thoughtful.
The central question of “Moving Cars” is the question Stevenson returns to in the chorus—“In the face of those I love am I the sort who’s jumping out of sort of moving cars?” It’s a fascinating metaphor—one that requires some effort to unpack, and it’s this question—it didn’t make me feel attacked, and yes, I would go so far as to say that it made me feel a little “seen,” but more than anything else, this conceit, and the song as a whole, made me feel understood.
Or, if not understood, I felt validated.
“Moving Cars” is a rich, devastating still life portrait of the human condition—and much like the human condition, there are no answers, easy or otherwise, found in the song. Not even asking to be the “best” one can be, but simply just good, or enough for that moment. Am I being the best friend I can be? Am I even a good friend—enough of a friend in that moment?
Am I being the best spouse I can be? Am I even enough? Am I good?
Stevenson never answers her question—if she is the sort who is jumping out of sort of moving cars, in the eyes of others. And what lingers, or haunts, more than that unanswered question, or maybe it’s an unanswerable question, is the line she ends each chorus with, and the line she sings as the song comes to a delicate conclusion—“And if I told you that I needed it to end.”
The way she lets her voice rise, and hold the note on the word “end” is unforgettable, and the “it” in question is left open for interpretation—something to ruminate on well after the song has faded away, well after this year is over, and well into the next.
“Relative Fiction” by Julien Baker
I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry for something that I’m gonna do again…
And I suppose the more obvious choice would have been “Hardline,” the explosive, deprecating opening track (and second single released) from Julien Baker’s third full length album, Little Oblivions. It is, of course, the song that sets the tone for the rest of the songs that follow—both musically, but more important, lyrically.
Tucked in the middle of the the album’s first side, “Relative Fiction,” is a continuation of some of the ideas from “Hardline,” but here, Baker isn’t so much seeking redemption, or is as apologetic, as she is reckless, frustrated, and desperate.
There is a very palpable longing that is present in a bulk of Little Oblivions—a longing for sobriety, and clarity, but also for the kind of love, and acceptance, that is just slightly out of Baker’s grasp. And on “Relative Fiction,” she uses, perhaps, the most vivid (yet still poetically ambiguous) imagery found across the entire record. “Midnight—you could see me dangling,” she begins while reflective, somber piano chords play underneath and a trudging, programmed beat keeps rhythm. “Glow like a cherry falling—now it’s a downpour. You could see me racing the rain to the ground floor; you’re the only thing I’ll wait around for. Maybe when you get off of work you should meet me—we could go barreling down the main street. You could try watching while I run through the high-beams.”
Echoing one of my favorite lines from “Hardline,” Baker, in “Relative Fiction”’s bridge, is brutal in her effacement—“I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry for something that I’m gonna do again.”
And it is, of course, the way Baker plays with the song’s gradual build and then take off—allowing a compressed, chopped up sounding drum kit to come in, and creating a literal groove (of all things) during the second verse—all of which drops out as she utters the titular phrase of the song, before the embittered frustration (with herself, and with an unnamed antagonist) arrives in the final lines. “I don’t need a savior—I need you to take me home,” she sneers in the third verse. “I don’t need your help–I need you to leave me alone,” she continues, before revisiting the violent imagery she, throughout her catalog of songs, often writes into her lyrics. “I try to express, I can’t understand. I beat at the keys—I bloody my hands ’til you hear me.”
“Relative Fiction,” even in its harrowing, self-searching lyrics, and the downcast shadow looming over the instrumentation, is contrasted by just how high Baker allows the song to soar.
“Renegade”/“Birch” by Big Red Machine featuring Taylor Swift
Is it insensitive for me to say, ‘Get your shit together so I can love you?’
It makes a lot of sense that “Birch” and “Renegade” are sequenced back to back on the second album from Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon’s collective Big Red Machine—for as different as they are in execution and tone, the songs have a lot in common, outside of the obvious. And in placing them together on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, it creates a nine minute run where one is not the other’s reflection through, like, a fun house mirror—but rather, one is more like the inverse of the other.
It also makes a lot of sense that after her collaboration with Dessner on both Folklore and Evermore, that Taylor Swift would turn up as a featured vocalist on How Long—it is surprising, though, that while she takes the lead on “Renegade,” she plays a quiet, supporting role to Justin Vernon’s shadowy, anguished musings on “Birch.”
“Renegade,” if it makes sense, is entirely more outward in how it arrives, while “Birch,” is much more insular—a pensive, reflective nature that its companion is more or less lacking.
The reality is that “Renegade,” with all its frenetic percussive elements and quick, acoustic guitar flourishes, sounds like it could have been an outtake from Dessner and Swift’s work on Evermore—sharing some similarities, even down to the way the melody falls into place in the choruses, with “Long Story Short.” And it seems weird, or at little out of place, to describe a song with lyrics like “Renegade” as being, or at least sounding fun—but it is. Further closing the gap between Dessner’s and Vernon’s penchant for intricate, lush “indie rock” arrangements, and Swift’s knack for infectious pop-leaning songwriting and attitude, “Renegade” is absolutely rollicking and kaleidoscopic in the way all of the elements come swirling together, pushing the song forward with an unrelenting momentum, especially when the chorus hits.
Perhaps the easiest (and maybe a little too callous) way to describe the antagonist, or foil, to Swift in “Renegade,” is that he is depicted as having big “I can fix him” energy—“If I would have known how many pieces you had crumbled into, I might have let them lay,” Swift sings in the line that leads into the chorus, shortly before she asks the questions that are, more or less, at the heart of the song—“Is it insensitive for me to say, ‘Get your shit together so I can love you?’ Is it really your anxiety that stops you from giving me everything, or do you just not want to?”
But regardless of how fun, or rollicking “Renegade” can be as it oscillates and tumbles, it is difficult to hear lyrics like that in a pop song—the kind of phasing that I see very clear reflections of myself, and my own shortcomings, and as memorable of a hook as Swift, Dessner, and Vernon have crafted, the thing that really lingers is the feeling of being seen, attacked, and mildly called out.
The way I woke up was old—it was all fucking choke
There is a shadowy, ambiguous feeling of longing in “Birch,” something that you are almost on the cusp of being able to name, or describe, before it slips through your fingers. This feeling is magnified by the very dramatic, extremely melancholic piano arrangement that falls into place against the jittery, warbled drum sample, and the additional, lush instrumentation from a violin, viola, saxophone, and flugelhorn—the sweeping of the strings creating another somber layer as the course through the song’s texture.
Along with that longing, there is also not so much a preoccupation with one’s mortality, but, perhaps, a heightened awareness of it—even in the fragmented imagery Vernon conjures the further the song goes, there are expressions that are a little easier to dissect than others—“The way I woke up was old,” he begins. “It was all fucking choke.”
Then, later on, his voice blended with Swift’s—“So I cannot leave—yes, I must here stay. ‘Cause I know what’s good, and I’ll die that way. No, I cannot seem to get a moment’s peace…”
And, as the elements of “Renegade” tumble and swirl together to create something dizzying and fun in the chorus, on “Birch,” there are moments when everything comes together too—though the result is exponentially less fun, though just as impactful in the feeling it creates. In the second verse, where “Birch” is, perhaps, the most vague in its lyrics, Swift and Vernon continue to sing together—“Hey Madeline, thanks—for to case out the fog; for Jennifer—seems she needed you badly.” And it’s in this moment, where the string arrangement continues to build and rise, that there is this cold, lonely sensation—the kind of overcast, late autumn into early winter chill that works itself into you, and even with as chilling, or melancholic as “Birch” is in its tone, there is something inherently comforting and hypnotic about how it sounds—how it pulsates and ripples, working its way deep into you, and never really lets go.
“Separated Anxiety” by Future Teens
I don’t hate myself, I guess—I’m just tired and overwhelmed…
At some point last year, I realized I was simply unable to continue answering the questions, “How are you?,” or “How’s it going?,” and provide the answer people expect, or at least, want to hear.
What people want to hear in return is usually, “good,” or “fine,” or “doing well.” But what happens when none of those are the case—when those are all more or less untrue, and how you are doing is literally the opposite.
Bad. Terrible. Not doing well.
So I started telling people that I was “fair.” And if probed further—if that meant I was doing well, or doing poorly, I would respond with, “Like all great art, ‘fair’ is open to interpretation.’”
If you ask Daniel Radin, the founder and one of the principal songwriters in the Boston-based group Future Teens, what kind of music the band plays, he’ll say, “rock music,” with the hopes that the conversation will just continue to move along because he doesn’t want to get into the semantics of genres or sub-genres.
Described once as “bummer pop,” or, as I referred to the group shortly after discovering them this spring and writing a lengthy reflection on their EP Deliberately Alive—emo music for adults, Future Teens write inherently personal and often sad or difficult lyrics, cleverly setting them to enormous and infectious hooks and melodies, and guitar driven, accessible instrumentation.
On “Separated Anxiety,” it’s very easy to get caught up in the bombast—the powerful, soaring, anthemic way the song is put together, unfolding in a blisteringly short two minutes and change running time. And the more time I spent with the song, the more I became aware of Radin’s usage a specific phrase—“keep the ugly stuff inside,” and I understood there was a lot more emotional heft, tucked in between all those gigantic sounding guitar strums.
“Found a good way to pass for fine in the corner of my mind,” Radin confesses in the song’s opening line, as the music already begins its unrelenting swell around him. “Simply say, ‘Yeah I’m all right’—maybe under think instead this time.”
“So I’ve practiced and I’ve tried to keep the ugly stuff inside,” he continues. “Keep my distance miles wide, and my truths half when I like,” but it’s the chorus to “Separated Anxiety” that cements the song as a kind of important, honest, and personal mission statement for someone, like myself, and perhaps like you as well—the depressed person who has run out of goodwill for answering the question of how it’s “going” or how I am “doing”—“So when I said, ‘I don’t hate myself, I guess—I’m just tired and overwhelmed,’ at least I’m glad I finally said something I felt.”
“Separated Anxiety” isn’t just a borderline cry for help set to an infectious melody, or a blanket statement on how challenging it can be to balance the honesty about your mental health—it is also about putting in the work, which sometimes seems insurmountable, to try and pull yourself out of the depths. “Turns out I was watering the weeds hoping to root the good in me,” Radin continues in the second verse. “But growths no good with no good seed.”
A song like “Separated Anxiety” is an important reminder that it’s okay to no be “okay” and to be honest about that, that it’s okay to want to work on yourself, and that it is more than alright to have a hard time knowing where to begin.
“September” by Lanue
Slow September, when I almost left it all behind….
It would have been a few months after the record came out when, in passing, I caught a song from Sarah Krueger’s Lanue project on the radio, and later that day, I texted a friend to suggest she listen—I remember describing it as smoldering, and the kind of music that was perfect to soundtrack late nights in the summer.
Lanue, as musical identity, is more or less a new beginning for the Duluth based singer and songwriter. Having released two albums under her own name, Krueger, as it is mentioned in a short piece about her new effort, started feeling distant from the music she had been making, and opted to step away for roughly seven years, going back to school and then becoming a teacher.
There are a lot of impressive (and devastating) songs to be found on Lanue, and following a short, ethereal introduction, it’s the album’s second track, “September,” that sets the tone for what will follow—but more importantly, “September” is arguably the most impactful from this set—both musically, and on an emotional level.
Perhaps its the gentle arranging that opens up the song—a hushed, yet crisp rhythm tumbling through from the drum kit, somber piano chords that ring out, and a cavernous, mournful pedal steel; perhaps it is Krueger’s smoky, gorgeous voice, and the hypnotic way she plays with her range, and delivers specific phrasing, like “But he had a way with me, way with me, way with me—in the dying of the night,” letting it roll through the song’s instrumentation like a rippling tide; perhaps it’s the lyrics, themselves—vague yet evocative, haunting, devastating, and beautiful—with expressions that resonate and linger well after the song is over: “Slow September, when I almost left it all behind,” “Under shadows, we might still make it out alive,” and within the song’s chorus—“Call off your burdens—won’t you give me a little grace?”
And yet, perhaps, it’s the way Krueger and the band she’s assembled to play on Laune—recorded both in her native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and in Duluth, Minnesota—allow the song to naturally build and reach a peak. It isn’t a point of cacophony, but it’s a place where Krueger is okay with giving up a little control over the “September,” and concedes to release some of the simmering tension that has continued to grow over the course of the song.
With around a minute left of the song, all of its elements begin to swirl around into something that is both beautiful and heartbreaking—a reflection of the desperation that courses through both this song’s lyrics, as well as throughout the rest of the album. But it’s this moment—perfect in the way that it allows the song to let itself go but never really gets too far out of Krueger’s grasp; perfect in the way that it becomes the sound of everything slowly, delicately tumbling down around you—perfect in the way that there is so much beauty in the way it’s all crumbling, you can’t help but stop, and listen, in complete awe.