The songs for Mirel Wagner’s second record (and first for Sub Pop), When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, were written in isolation. Wagner worked on these songs alone, so no wonder these songs feel so isolated. The production adds elements occasionally, but the focus is on her closely microphoned voice and acoustic guitar. There’s a coffin-like closeness and aloneness to each and every song on this haunting record. It’s a fitting feel for a record so focused on death.
Opener “1 2 3 4” is a lullaby in the most classical sense: it’s sweet and hushed and terrifying at its core. Wagner wonders what might be under the floorboards, perhaps a body with “pretty little face, pretty little eyes / big fat belly birthing out flies.” All the more frightening is the way Wagner eases into the role of killer in the second verse, plainly stating “I’ve got a big, big heart and lots of love” for all her victims. “The Dirt” is not as immediately violent, but it’s equally painful in its rendering of the long road from hunger and poverty to death. “You can’t eat the dirt,” she says, but also “you’ll be the dirt.”
Other songs find troubling corners in what should be comforting places. “In My Father’s House” is a horror show of smiling, polite faces, children who never cry, servants who change sheets without asking. As the song builds, it’s clear this isn’t some utopia but rather a chilling expectation from a ruling and scary patriarch. On “Dreamt of a Wave”, any chance for the cleansing or birth metaphors that go along with water is dashed when Wagner tells us the wave was “flesh and blood and bone” in a low growl.
What’s most effective, and chilling, about Wagner’s songs is that she doesn’t try to make death and the macabre into beauty necessarily, there’s no attempt to shine it up. Instead, her voice is plainspoken, delivering the shadowy details not as a means to understanding but as cold, hard fact. Her voice does have a subtle range in this delivery, and is tense and evocative, but it’s also always half whisper, as if Wagner herself is hiding from something or trying not to wake something up.
And that something, whatever it is, you get the feeling on this record that it could be anywhere. Every time Wagner plucks a note or strikes a chord, you seem to hear two things: the sound and the chasm of silence around it. There aren’t progressions here so much as there are archipelagoes of notes or chords with oceans of space between them. This use of space and silence makes a half-hour-long record feel far longer and weightier. It also creates a sort of strange limbo space where there’s little comfort or catharsis for the listener, yet they’re drawn in anyway. There are songs like “What Love Looks Like” that mention the possibility of connection, but there’s a deep skepticism in these moments, and on a record where death seems so commonplace, love is what ends up feeling alien, even unwanted.
When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day is an insistently dark record, and that constant shadowy feeling can, in moments, take its toll. But Wagner has seemed to peel folk and blues traditions down to their bone, bringing underlying anxieties up to surface in these often mesmerizing songs. Still, when she drifts ghost-like through “The Devil’s Tongue” or “Oak Tree”, you can start to feel the limits of an album so dedicated to these themes, this isolation. Because, while the best moments here resonate, the album can occasionally feel stuck back in that cabin they were written in. It’s hard to strike a balance in music between the sound of isolation and the connection to an audience. Mirel Wagner finds that tether more often than not on this album, but sometimes it’s so dark that that tie is hard to see.