[2 January 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On the cover of her second album, Wider, Melanie Valera, aka Tender Forever, is meditating next to a construction-paper campfire of her own design, beneath Post-It Notes posted together to spell the album title. The inside photo shows her constructing this scene. Taken together with lyrics from the album like “Yes, the best shelter / I guess / Is the one I build for myself” or “My home is my head / That’s the best place I know”, the cover has me picturing Valera as something like the protagonist of Michel Gondry’s film The Science of Sleep. That character created his own world of quirky little dream-fuelled toys and mechanisms, yet could not relate to actual people. As portrayed by Gael García Bernal, he was, from my perspective, unbearably narcissistic, the epitome of that romanticized notion that artists are special, misunderstood souls, which is so easily used as a cover for the most selfish and hurtful behavior. Valera’s persona on Wider is more charming than that, but there is a similar sense of someone who can engage with the world outside only through her own head, by creating her own universe.
Actually, as an album of love songs Wider is more like an invitation, beckoning someone else to come into that insular, homemade world, or for them to create a new one together. Love here is entwined with creating. The opening song, “Tiny Heart & Clever Hand”, is about a couple’s affection, and their mutual love of art and staving off danger, personified by wolves. Valera sings, “And if the wolves ever show up / And if they bark all night to keep you up / We should teach them a brand new song and how to whistle with their tongue”. Of course, the wolves are also within the lovers themselves, potentially, foreshadowing the conflict ahead as Wider steps its way, song by song, through the rising and falling of a love affair.
Whether it’s infatuation or heartbreak Valera is singing about, she’s intense about it. She has that body-centered new-age vibe that several other K Records artists share. It comes out in electronic beats, but also in mystical, visceral lyrics. She sings of love in terms of hearts, veins, secrets, and mysteries, not to mention the lovers spending every waking moment together. It isn’t sunny, though. It’s a struggle. She compares love to a war in “Heartbroken Forever”. More often it seems like the world outside is the war. In “So We Could Deal”, she tells a lover, “Lady, the world is going crazy / Forget what is around to keep you feet on the ground”. Ignoring the world around is a defense mechanism; love is a means of attempting to replace chaos with security. In “Nicer If They Tried”, she sings of love as building a shield from sadness. But, significantly, within that shield they’re sending their love to everyone outside, trying to wish a better world into being. “We love them so hard / That it could make us build a new universe”, she sings.
That universe, as represented musically by Wider, is one built from layers of voice and sound that together are comforting, though more static in nature than the lustier sound of her previous album, The Soft and the Hardcore. Besides a couple minor guest appearances, the overlapping voices and instruments are Valera’s. She plays synthesizers, mostly, but also a wooden spoon, chopsticks, an “old crappy drumset from 1981”, a saucepan, “some rice”, and more. Musically, then, she’s also building her own universe from scraps, much as relationships as she sings about them involve two people using their own scraps of memories, feelings, and ideas to together build a world.
By the album’s end, though, that world built of love is falling apart. Comfort doesn’t last, it’s disrupted by difference and turned into heartbreak. “Heartbroken Forever” describes separation in grounded terms, far from the romantic dreaming of other songs: “There’s no secrets, no pop songs, no raindrops, no tears”. It’s also, and this is interesting, easily the most hopeful-sounding song on the album. By the end of Wider, our protagonist is alone and tired, back to creating her own little universe. And perhaps happier for it.