Some artists get a little slack as time passes, losing whatever fierceness made them compelling in the first place. That intensity isn’t the only way to make good art, but it is one of the main ones, and it can be hard to keep up. Not because people love selling out, but because time passes and whatever’s driving you dies down a little, or you get bored, or you get complacent. But sometimes you get the opposite. Some artists just keep refining themselves over time, honing themselves to a keen edge, cutting back anything that’s non-essential, and the result is a voice that gets more distinct and more intense as they keep working, not less.
One way you can tell that Picastro’s Liz Hysen is the second kind of artist is that Become Secret is her most inviting, even catchiest work to date at the same time that it’s her darkest, most unsettling album. Working again with drummer Brandon Valdivia and cellists Stephanie Vittas and Nick Storring, here Hysen has moved away from the Dirty Three atmospherics of Red Your Blues, the clean folk band sprawl of Metal Cares, and the haunted phantasmagoria of Whore Luck (their ‘rock’ album, I suppose, and the Toronto band’s finest effort before this one), and towards the closest thing she’s yet done to a solo album. Themes include the torments of St. Anthony, dying in the desert, love curdling to something worse than hate, Antonioni’s The Passenger and, to quote one of the best lines I’ve ever read in an album promo, “the collapse of everything you know”. These are songs about the desire to escape from the burdens of life and the futility of that attempt whether you’re wandering through the desert, impersonating someone else, or just hiding in your room.
Musically the songs are gorgeous, usually just piano and acoustic guitar and cello, maybe a little bit of percussion or static, and Hysen’s eternally sighing voice. The instrumentals “A Dune a Doom” and “A Neck in the Desert”, like the rest of this slim, cohesive 29 minutes, are starkly beautiful but never sentimental or saccharine; it’s the beauty of the wasteland. When Hysen sings, she throws the ingratiating surfaces of these songs into sharp relief. And not just when she’s muttering “you’ve done hell for me, you’ve done” on “Split Head” or repeating “you’re on me, you’re on me” at the end of “Pig & Sucker” in a way that makes it clear that nothing good is going on. You’re never exactly sure what’s happening in a Picastro song, but you get the sense the people Hysen’s narrators sing to aren’t sure either. It’s a world of mysteriously casual violence (emotional and physical), one where the group chants of “(you/I) will never love again, (I/you) will never grieve again” on “Suttee” is the closest Become Secret comes to being at all upbeat just because it sounds like it’s being sung around a campfire. The album was recorded by Espers’ Greg Weeks and, like that band, here Picastro often sound entirely out of time and space in a way that has nothing to do with psychedelic drugs or hippy spirituality. But the band doesn’t sound otherworldly; these songs touch something too primitive and atavistic deep within human nature for that.
Unlike most of their peers, Hysen and Picastro are dark without being cartoonish or goth, delicate without being merely pretty, sparse without being dourly ascetic. From the first doomy piano notes of “Twilight Parting” to the foreboding guitar/cello interplay that closes “The Stiff”, Become Secret is essentially perfect. There’s not a note wasted or wrongly placed, not a single element out of order. There’s nothing to add or to take away from what’s here. Or, to put it another way, I suppose you could take issue with what they’re trying to accomplish here, but I can’t imagine thinking that Picastro have in any way failed to succeed in accomplishing it. That’s a rare and precious thing.