Mark Rothko (left to right): White Center (1950), Untitled (1954). No. 10 (1950)
In November of 2016 Donald Trump won the presidency and I finally got on antidepressants that worked. I’ve felt off balance in the world and unsure of my own inner terrain since. For the first time in my life the outside world is markedly more hostile than my inner landscape and I’ve found myself stretching outward, reaching for connection.
It’s difficult though, to navigate relationships, and rediscover a self that was long buried, when every day seems to be full of action. The world is slowly crumbling around us, there are battles to fight. There are ugly truths, the exposure of which have torn the scar tissue on old wounds. Everyday the endless news stream feels like an attack.
So, inevitably, I turned to music to try and explore these uneasy inner terrains. Each of these albums evokes a different space, a different moment of intense, but softly expressed, feeling. There is a loneliness to all of them a sense of physical or emotional confinement. The place inside of ourselves which is left for emotion, where selfishness and vulnerability are allowed, is one that is lonely, and hard to reach.
I’M SELFISH AND AFRAID
I recommend looking at the album cover for Harmony Woods’ Nothing Special even if you’re only streaming. It’s inviting, a collage of intimate snapshots, fitting for an album about the spaces love takes up and leaves. By looking at expressions of physical intimacy surrounded by warm pinks and oranges, you can see the exact space where the emotional distance exists and feel the tone of the reach to traverse it.
Sofia Verbilla sings with a raw tenderness- the songs all measuring the intense distance between two people with mental illness widening the cracks. The album lives in this disconnect, reveling in the ache of love looking at their face while they watch TV and knowing you could need this person- reaching for something soft, a hidden warmth under covers. Each song is full of love and fear, and a hope there’s a place where two people can exist safe from their deepest hurts.
The song “Speckled” in particular lives in these emotional spaces. One person’s love and optimism comes face to face with another’s unfixable fears. The song is directed at a partner’s fears about the future, but is stalled out on a warm sunlit “darling, all I see are the freckles on our shoulders / getting older never seemed so fine.” The distance remains, but so does the hope as we trip forward into the next song and moments of sharing in a dark parking lot, and eventually to the 2 AM insecurities that eat you from across the bed. The doubts that come when you can’t fix someone, wondering “maybe I’m the one to blame / I’m selfish and afraid.” Much of this album lives in the worries around one partner pulling away and retreating into themselves due to past traumas, and the balancing of insecurity, a desire to cross the self-imposed physical distance, and the hurt of not being able to yell that you need something too.
Yet, the narrative flow of this album is particularly appealing, because it ends with hope. Maybe my strongest feeling about 2017 is that this kind of broken, tentative hope is necessary for survival. Even when the future is dangerous and uncertain it is worth holding together in the imbalanced possibility. Nothing is spoken, but the space that has been gaping is crossed to allow for something. “You just lay down next to me. / Silence never sounded so sweet.”
MY HEART IS GONNA EAT ITSELF, I DON’T NEED ANYBODY’S HELP
It’s rare that an album is so bold and blatant about the mundane struggle of depression as Julian Baker’s Turn Out the Lights. The rooms full of people with whom you must speak for your own health, even as none of it seems to catch. The strange hollowness of a non-relationship with god- the inner space stretching out into the heavens. In the song “Everything that Helps you Sleep” she questions,
‘What is it like to be empty?
Full of only echoes
And my body caving in
A cathedral of arching ribs
Heaving out their broken hymns”
The entire album is a prayer and a bruise, rippling with desperation “lord lord lord is there some way to make is stop because nothing that I do ever helps to turn it off.” Yet it is balanced in turn with a resignation, a certainty that there is no way to be fixed.
“The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” – a dizzy repeat on the track “Sour Breath” – sonically replicates a downward spiral and makes me think of both the Frightened Rabbit song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” which played on repeat as a desperate anthem during the darkest days of my own depression, and the dark desperate scenes of the film Gattica where the ocean is as endless as space and they only way to truly win is to never look back, never hold back.
Ultimately you are left with the truth that “there’s no one left between myself and me,” and the unsteadiness of where that leaves you.
I DO FUCKED UP THINGS IN MY DREAMS, SO WHAT?
I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone is Chastity Belt’s darkest album. It lives in this moment, swirling thoughts in the dark, an attempt to grapple with the fear and uncertainty that bubbles up when given a single empty moment.
There is a certain strange silence when you are walking home alone in the dark, left alone in the dark after a night of chasing away your thoughts, avoiding your own mind, “thoughts drowned in darker thoughts,” that carries through. The music itself is muted, a low drone broken by either a warm lift, or a cold hush on guitar.
Each song seems to step out into the night for a cigarette, leaving behind warmth to question everything and question if those questions are even allowed to be asked. The fear of ingratitude, and of being melodramatic dogs each song’s steps. It’s the kind of questioning that is universal in its nagging worry. Is there something missing, maybe “I should quit my job and get a life / Fuck Friday nights.” The worries are unresolved, the questions unanswered.
YOUR BODY IS A BLADE THAT CUTS A PATH FROM DAY TO DAY.
Japanese Breakfast has played the Crocodile, a venue in Seattle, twice this year once as an opener, and once as promotion this album Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Both times Michelle Zaunermade a point of getting the disco ball turned on for the song Boyish, and set the mood for “a middle school dance where the guy you like walks right past you to dance with your friend.” The lights swirling in a dark room, the distance between you and someone you don’t know how to speak to, a communion with a primal hurt.
This album grooves. Mixing hurt with an occasional dirty sax, a baseline that drives you forward and beats to make you sway. Its intimacy is sexy, its spaces lonely– but not quiet or empty. It both receives road head on a winding drive and aches from a distance singing “I want you while you want something more beautiful.”
There is a warm nighttime love here, but not one that will last. It offers both the petty ““I don’t blame, it’s just the love run its course, and it’s a little bit lonely.”
In “The Hours”, the distance of a country between lost love pettily asks “And did you ever even love her? / Or was it rooted in companionship and timing?” and offers up thanks to the non-romantic relationships ending on the grimly hopeful “I guess I owe it to the timing of companions / I survived the year at all, at all, at all.”
WE SURVIVED THIS YEAR, US ALL.
2017 has been full of soul searching, of finding quiet moments to connect, and to self reflect. It is impossible to say if it will get easier, but the searching is a scaffolding, the stolen moments all add up to something. Armed with hard won understanding, and new truths the long, quiet fights of this long, terrible year have left us stronger, and ready to move forward into something that glimmers with possibility. •
Allison Hamilton is a Seattle transplant, but swears she’s not a tech bro. She writes for fun, but wishes it was for profit, and is most easily spotted lurking a local shows. You can find her on twitter or subscribe to her newsletter on TinyLetter.