Your Friend’s debut EP Jekyll/Hyde cut through a lot of the world’s noise with a showcase for Taryn Miller’s voice and her minimalist, mysterious yet piercing songs. Listening to that EP’s six songs, at first it was mainly an overwhelming atmosphere that made an impression, yet that atmosphere was built up through a seeming minimum of pieces: her soaring voice, some spellbinding guitar, drums that occasionally pummeled their way in, a general feeling of midnight in isolation. Listening put me in the mindset of being alone in an old house in the middle of nowhere, which very well might be the setting for the recording process itself. I’m not sure how many times I listened before I started paying attention to the lyrics at all, even though they were right there in front of me, laid bare.
Her first full-length, Gumption takes that same starting point and builds up beautifully and strangely from it. Miller’s voice still floats and flies and gets brittle and at the same time digs at our soul, yet even it has fuller, deeper, perhaps even stranger qualities to it. The songs are similar in tone, yet the world of sounds they project is full and weird. It isn’t just that this second release takes the stereotypical “make things fuller” approach. It’s more complicated than that.
There is more going on here, musically, for sure, but those layers of sound aren’t just piled onto a skeleton. They take detours, they confuse, they build up and then start messing around with the scenery. The first track “Heathering” starts with a couple notes that imply some kind of uptempo pop jam, before sliding into a slow mid-waltz where Miller is singing about memories of weird feelings, in life or perhaps a dream. There’s some soft-rock guitar playing going on, but also strange noises beneath—from backing vocals (or are those vocals at all?) forming a hush to creaking sounds like the floor’s about to give. The tempo shifts a bit unexpectedly, the background noises surge up like they’re taking over, her voice starts sounding more disembodied, and all through it we struggle to follow the narrative of someone feeling or being lost.
And that’s just the beginning. The persistent amount of musical and some might say nonmusical sounds working their way through her songs will make writers pull out old clichés about soundscapes and atmospherics. But this doesn’t feel like scenery or scene-setting alone. More like she’s guiding a set of strange sound-makers through her vision for her songs. On “Come Back From It”, the fuzz and clangs and bangs are in service of a great melody, and the emotional hook “Love keep grounded”. On the spellbinding “Nothing Moved”, you’re not that away of strange sounds until they slowly emerge and reveal themselves as part of the song’s elemental structure.
There are general themes here of identity, memory and experience. Human beings figuring out what they are and how they relate to each other. Worrying, dreaming, shivering. Phrases like “tugging at my nature” and “how I see you / how you see me” emerge as hooks in songs where you’re otherwise not that focused on following a plot. The point here seldom seems like taking sung words and analyzing them like literature (if that’s ever an end-all point of listening to music). That doesn’t mean the observations and expressions in the lyrics don’t collectively steer us through an intense emotional experience. The title track is a person asking deep questions of herself, and the album is, too. Questions of herself and questions of us. That the music itself also seems to be persistently asking unanswerable questions is an important part of what makes Gumption such a rewarding experience.
Near the album’s end, the song “I Turned In” finds Miller repeatedly asking, “How did I get back here”? It’s a human question, applicable to many situations. The way she sings it, the question suggests worry, but less disappointment than a concerned sense of wonder. It’s also a quintessential pop moment—centering melody around one compact emotional expression. Gumption is a pop album and an experimental work, with all of the deep charms of both.
Gumption’s final track title asks a similarly iconic and beguiling question: “Who will I be in the morning?”