“I will lose my shit if even one more person I know dies / So please don’t die”, Kimya Dawson sings on “My Mom”, two songs into her new album, Remember That I Love You. That sentiment might seem like hyperbole or play-acting in someone else’s hands, but not hers. Anyone who’s heard any of her first four albums knows that her songs are built from the hurt caused by personal traumas and losses. Anger at the deaths of friends, extreme depression about one’s own circumstances: these are the building blocks of a million songs. But there’s no one who handles them quite the way that Kimya does. She takes the absolute hardest, darkest side of life and turns it into songs that tilt in a completely positive, embrace-every-moment direction.
It’s anger turned into optimism, and you trust that the latter is 100% genuine because you trust that the former is, because she gives the impression of absolute honesty, that this is her life and her deepest emotions that she’s singing about. And that singing songs to make other people feel better, to help them overcome their own hardships, is what music is all about. As she puts it in the song “The Competitions”, “I sang and sang and sang / About how crappy I felt / Not realizing how many other people would relate”.
Kimya Dawson does not have the voice of a typical pop singer—her voice is brittle, she often sounds like she’s about to cry. And the cadence of her singing can be unusual, especially the way she fits the words to the melodies. It’s music that’s unique in the way people are unique: her songs seem inextricably linked to their creator.
Her idiosyncratic songwriting style seems more fully developed with each album. Remember That I Love You, her fifth album, has a fairly unadorned, solitary atmosphere, especially compared to the everybody-sings communal feeling of her last album, Hidden Vagenda. But the songs are especially distinct, and especially direct.
“My Mom” is a stunning example of both that uniqueness and the emotional power. The song opens with a startling image as she recounts a dream of a baby drowning. Then she connects it to her genuine feeling of dread about friends dying, and then connects that to the immediate concern: “My mom’s sick / She’s in a hospital bed”. But then, before getting back to her mom’s disease and how she wants to chase the sickness away, she segues into a classic Sesame Street story. You know, the take on “The Gift of the Magi” where Bert and Ernie each trade in their favorite possession (paperclip collection and rubber duckie) to buy the other a gift, yet the gifts are related to the original possession? Dawson sings it in a way that emphasizes Mr. Hooper’s words praising the two friends for their selflessness. The story is perhaps a sign that Dawson is taking on the persona of a child. Her music does often have a youthful orientation (plus she often dresses up in animal costumes when she performs, and wheels a stroller of toy dolls on stage with her). But she sings this Sesame Street story in such a sincere way, as if to say “These children’s stories still have messages we all need to hear…”.
“I Like Giants”, another of the album’s highlights, shares this theme in a way, as Dawson sings in part about a story which bears a message that breaks her heart, making her think about the world in a new way. And that’s the ultimate point of Dawson’s own music, too: to present stories and emotions that people will relate to, that will make them feel and think. She sings of trying to handle anger and confusion with courage (“Caving In”), and of facing inner turmoil and the inevitability of death (“Underground”).
But she also pushes her songs outside of the personal. “12/26” expresses empathy with victims of the tsunami, painting a portrait of terror which asks us to put ourselves in the victims’ place, and also points a finger at the rich and powerful who don’t care enough to help. The song might resonate even more deeply for Americans now, post-Hurricane Katrina, but its sentiment cuts beyond geographical borders to ask universal questions about how we help our fellow humans in need.
The universal power of a song—the way it can touch you or provoke you, even though it was written by a stranger, in another time and place—is a theme that lies behind every moment of Remember That I Love You. Dawson has this firm belief in the power of music to link strangers. “If you want to kill yourself / Remember that I love you / Call me up before you’re dead / Send me an IM / I’ll be your friend”, she sings on “Loose Lips”, and you imagine that she would indeed be your friend if you followed her advice.
It’s not that music fans need musicians to be their friends necessarily, but that human connection is a big part of why songs appeal to people. Get outside of the world of music criticism and ask people about the songs that mean the most to them and you’ll find that it’s often the songs that hit them in the heart, songs that said something they heard, that made them feel like living was worthwhile. Dawson believes in that power of music. Just listen to the album’s final track, “My Rollercoaster”. She takes her own song about touring the country playing house shows, and from it she rolls into a medley of pop songs she loves to sing along to: Metallica’s “One”, Tom Cochran’s “Life Is a Highway”, Third Eye Blind’s “Semi Charmed Life”. One person’s dumb pop song is another’s savior.