Let’s be monsters, like we really are
The prevailing wisdom about Toronto’s Picastro (to the extent that there is one) seems to be that they’re ‘spooky’. It’s an understandable take: Liz Hysen is comfortable taking her sombre-hued voice from melodic to atonal whenever the music calls for it; the lyrical content certainly doesn’t shy away from the dimmer end of things (in either subject matter or its view of human nature); and the band has described its own sound as “quiet and aggressive”, not a combination many people find comforting. But I think the key to understanding why You is so wonderful lies not just in the possible spookiness, but the combination of it with something else Hysen’s said about Picastro: “It’s music that is meant for human connection and empathy. I don’t think it’s scary, not sure what that says about me but at the very least if it has helped you out in some way, then I am happy.”
In a year where the bleak-as-hell True Detective is a huge pop culture sensation, maybe it should be more surprising that more listeners don’t warm to bands making the kind of dark, emotionally complex music that Picastro always has, but we’ve always tended to accept more nuance and depth from male TV antiheroes than we do from female-fronted bands. We tend to assume that “human connection and empathy” can only be found in the positive, but just as our lives aren’t unmitigated sweetness and light neither are the things we draw support from. You isn’t Picastro lightening up — “State Man’s” justifiably self-loathing narrator is set to supple folk verses and droning cello cello refrains, and the buzzing “Vampires” sounds a bit like past collaborators Espers having a nightmare — but that’s far from the only tone here. The record begins with Hysen and Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker singing “I turned a mountain into a relief / I shoot the harm out of everything” in unison, and not only is it beautiful it’s comforting. The language is just opaque enough you can put any number of spins on what they’re actually singing, but the emotional timbre of their voices, one of weary protectiveness, is clear and warm.
While Picastro’s last solo full length, 2009’s excellent, stark Become Secret, was an almost-solo album for Hysen, here long-running band members Brandon Valdivia and Nick Storring (on drums and cello respectively) are much more prominent, and many of the songs are fleshed out with more guitars, electronics, and guests this time. The whole record is very carefully balanced; “Judas Claim”, a spectral duet with the pleasantly creaky-voiced Alex Lukashevsky, flows naturally out of the heavier, howling coda of “Temur”, and the gorgeous, intertwining strings at the end “Two Women” (which slightly resemble early Horse Feathers) perfectly set up the wryly confident “Endlessly” (“when it’s time for me to go, I’ll let you know”). Nobody’s going to mistake the music here for “Hey Jude” or “Shiny Happy People”, but it’s an odd kind of confusion to think something must necessarily be hostile or off-putting just because it’s dark, or even just even-keeled. These songs are also melodic, structurally interesting, and consistently rewarding, whether or not you find them spooky.
You also has one of the strongest ends of any Picastro records, with Valdivia’s kalimba anchoring the sprawling narrative of the carefully wrought “Baron in the Trees” to its steady pulse as voice, cello, and synthesizer warp above it and then Hysen’s sister Angela singing about “the burden of sound” on the brief, spellbinding “February” before the record unravels with a brief spell of wordless keening. It’s a bit unearthly; you could find it weird and scary. But it’s as beautiful as the rest of Picastro’s work, and if you approach their music in the right spirit, you could just as easily find it welcoming.