Soul Retrieval marks my introduction to the music of singer/songwriter Larkin Grimm. Best described as a musical auteur, Grimm draws from recognizable musical sources and integrates them into a sound that’s all her own: always unique, often odd, and sometimes mysterious. I got an idea of this by reading the press kit released by her publicist; I didn’t even need to listen to her album to know that her style was different than most musicians’. While most press junkets are overstuffed with hyperbolic language detailing how some band has “revitalized” or “reinvented” the genre(s) they play in, the press description of Soul Retrieval was devoid of such tropes. There isn’t a single description of how the record sounds at all. Grimm talks about her musical heritage in Appalachian folk, but she brings that heritage up not to categorize her music but to explain who she is as a person. Indeed, the entire press kit is an extended passage of Grimm describing how she came to make this record. She details her tragic youth, in which the “hippie” community that she lived in with her parents was disbanded by a CIA infiltration. From there, she goes on to discuss her disillusionment with liberal academia, her world travels, and many other incidents leading up to the recording of Soul Retrieval. This story was a nice break from the tired exaggerations of most press kits I read; it was a genuine, true explanation of her music and her personal journey. But to divorce those two things would be to commit an error; Grimm’s music cannot be divorced from who she is, any more than who she is can be divorced from her music.
When I sat down to listen to the record, prepared to parse through its musical elements and judge whether or not they measured up to some critical standard, I realized that I was listening to the record the wrong way. This album, like all albums, can be subject to critical review and interpretation; but the standard ways in which music critics review records didn’t suffice when I listened to Soul Retrieval. This album, though undoubtedly a work of art, isn’t trying to make a critical statement or upend a genre’s expectations. This album is about telling a story. Not everyone will be enthralled by the many stories Grimm tells here; very few, if any, stories have universal appeal. But to try to reduce this album to basic critical statements like “Grimm’s slightly psychedelic folk creates a dreamlike mood,” or “her imagery-rich lyrics give the album a very poetic quality,” is to do violence to this record. Grimm no doubt wants the listener to be entertained by her stories, strange-sounding as they are, but the goal of this album isn’t to “entertain” in the commonly understood sense. The entertainment value of this album is one that requires rapt attention, something that threw me off upon first listening to the record. Soul Retrieval won’t sell millions of copies like many “entertaining” albums do, but the songs that Grimm sings and the stories she tells through those songs are much more resonant than much else that’s out there.
Obviously, it’s been difficult for me to describe how to classify this record. There are easy genre classifications to make, namely the ones already mentioned, but in truth the valuable thing worth communicating about Soul Retrieval is that in order to understand it one really has to listen to it all the way through. The statement may sound obvious, but many people don’t give records their fair due when judging them. Many just listen to the album’s single and then use that to judge the rest of the album; some give a perfunctory listen, only trying to focus on what the record “is.” Put simply: some people don’t really listen to records. For those interested in Grimm’s music, it’s essential to give it a thorough, deliberate listen. Her brand of lyricism and storytelling is practically guaranteed to spawn multiple different emotional connections and interpretations. In a time where music often oscillates between consumer-friendly pop (e.g. Katy Perry) or complex, philosophically imposing music (e.g. much of the literature analyzing the ideas of Radiohead’s music), it’s rare to hear music that tells stories in the way that Larkin Grimm’s does. Music does tell stories in more ways than one, but there’s something special about the way Soul Retrieval does it.
All in all, the three preceding paragraphs need only be summed up by four words: listen to it yourself! This type of music won’t appeal to everyone, especially those looking for a casual listen, but for those who are looking for an artistically unique album, Soul Retrieval is a place to look. This isn’t a record that I’ll listen to on repeat; heck, I may never listen to it for a long time (to say the least, PopMatters does keep a lot of music coming my way). But I do know that when I did listen to it, Soul Retrieval was a breath of fresh air. Most people don’t make music like Larkin Grimm does, but they probably should.