[25 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
To talk about Tim Showalter’s personal history and hear about him fighting with an overcoming various dark times makes him seem like so many singer-songwriters. But the wonderful thing about Showalter’s music, the conduit through which he filters these hard times and perhaps finds some meaning in them, is that with each release he complicates our understanding of him and, really, of what we should expect from singer-songwriter records. Leave Ruin was exposed nerve and personal details, but Pope Kildragon filtered the same deep emotional connection through absurdity and fantastic imagery. The quiet, dusty Dark Shores may have seemed like a return to terra firma, to what we should be hearing from Showalter—an acoustic guitar, an “I” readily recognizable (right or wrong) as him—but perhaps that was set-up for this, his new record, HEAL.
The catharsis inherent in the title is important, but so is the all-caps presentation. This is Showalter’s most wide-open, big-sounding, and generous album to date. It is, in a lot of ways, a spectacle, but the spectacle is not, exactly, about him. Instead it is about the music, about the people that create it, about the feeling it creates in the listener and in the player, about the ways it can save us. This is not about “facing the music”, it’s about the music facing life. The album came out of another rough time for Showalter, isolated from his wife on tour in Europe, that relationship strained, and doubting the worth of his last record, Showalter returned home and wrote 30 songs in three weeks. The ones that made HEAL take stock of a life and look to set it back on the rails it had seemed to be tilting off.
Showalter does this, firstly, by going back to a sort of beginning. Opener “Goshen ‘97” shows a teenage Showalter in his bedroom, messing with Casios, making music. “I was lonely / I was having fun,” he howls at the end of his verses, before he admits in the chorus “I don’t want to start all over again.” It’s a song that wonders over how you recapture the desire without going back to the drawing board. That the song is filled with furious guitar riffs (provided by J Mascis) and powerful rhythms suggest that this is the moment Showalter recaptures it, but the worry inherent in the song—and in the faint wobble of his voice—makes this not a moment of nostalgia but an aching breakthrough to start the record.
From there we move to the noir-stomp of the title track. It comes in on airy keys, ethereal sounds that eventually give way to buzzing synth lines and propulsive drums. The instruments provide muscle, but they also scrape out a negative space where Showalter’s echo-treated voice seems to be similarly stripped bare. “You got to give up, give in,” he sings, but he’s spitting the words out, nearly through his teeth. He’s champing at the bit to do this, eager to move forward rather than to admit defeat. All over the record, you can hear Showalter shedding layers, layers of the past, layers of depression and doubt. On “Shut In”, he worries he was born “maybe too late” because “everything good had already been made.” But as he presents himself as an artist in crisis, an isolated figure yet again, Showalter is still pushing to find something. If he’s taking stock of what is, he’s also in search of what’s next. “We all try in our own way to get better, / even if we’re alone,” he sings, his voice full yet rasped. He has referred to this album not as quiet healing but rather as scream therapy, and there are moments where the wear of that process, the pain of it, shows itself, adding another compelling emotional wrinkle to these songs.
Showalter also pays homage here, on the bracing and heartbraking “JM”, to the late Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. singer Jason Molina. The song is the album’s longest and also its most grand. The soft strike of guitar chords and pull-off notes let Showalter pay tribute to Molina’s own playing style. But it’s the vocal performance here that devastates. Showalter, full-throated in other moments here, is hushed and fragile. “My head was on fire,” he sings early, recounting moments of turmoil in his young life, and then thanking Molina for being there for him. “I had your sweet tunes to play,” he sings over and over in this song, and when keys and guitars rip out big rock breakdowns between the verses, we hear the effect of Molina’s music, the way it could sound so powerful even at its most quiet, how even if Showalter “hated all [his] friends” and sat in a room alone with his Molina records, those records could still blow the walls of that room down, could open up Showalter’s mind, creativity, spirit.
And this is what’s at the heart of the album, the way music can help us, comfort, even accompany us through times, dark and light, in our lives. Showalter takes on a lot of his past here, laying out accounts of so many years of anger and solitude, but on HEAL the attention moves away from the effect of those and towards the effect of music. Music does displace his history so much as it presents a way to reign it in, to make it a weight light enough to carry around. The music here, with help from producer John Cogleton, shows the expanding vision of Showalter’s art, taking the synth flourishes at the edges of past records and beefing them up here over arena-sized rock compositions. The mix sometimes slips, as on the industro-pop sheen of “Same Emotions”, but overall HEAL is the kind of heartbreaking album that never feels heartbreaking, that has a resiliency that keeps it from brooding. The album is an elegy, not to Showalter’s past but to a way of framing it, and with that frame gone these songs sound boundless, zealous, free.