Here's your apocalypse song. Laura Stevenson's stunning brand of Americana pop translates the 21st century breakdown into something worrying and sweetly touching.
“Some day in the not too distant future, America will dip its corners deeper into the ocean, the waves ever grinding at its shores as tectonic plates shift and sink." This is the press release for Laura Stevenson’s Wheel, and it’s so evocative I wish I could finish it off myself. I have my ideas, of course -- I think we all do, mostly about the scenes that envelop us or the evacuation that saves us -- but the idea of ending Stevenson’s own personal apocalypse is futile. Her indictment of a sinking America is one that lingers, waiting for “imminent death” but not knowing if it even fits among the big terrestrial event she’s describing. Wheel isn’t about the ending, because the world has no concern for it. It’s about the existential question that waits in thrall of it, wondering when the thing is going to happen, whatever it is, or if it’s even worth worrying about.
Wheel is a collection of apocalypse songs, yes, but for an apocalypse that takes place forever, and what’s unsettling is how Stevenson treats it. This talk of a “distant future”, of “going deeper”, sounds dangerously like a process. Wheel was inspired by watching the ice caps melt along Long Island beach, and so the end of the world that exists in Stevenson’s mind is primed with a slow, seething inevitability. The world is collapsing all around us, right now, and that’s a lot harder to accept than the quick, irreversible mistake of one man and a button, or a natural disaster that consumes us within the hour. We’d rather it was something we couldn’t stop. We’d rather it was something that didn’t stop at all.
So it tends to be in song. The average apocalypse record doesn’t go in for long stays, and tends to say “now” instead of “some day”. It might pick up the pieces and pore through them, as is Efrim Menuck’s special gift; “I open my wallet and it’s full of blood” is how he gets his apocalypse rolling, letting us get shocked by an image, get on and survey the reality of ghost towns. Menuck’s apocalypse is after the fact and so strikes us most because we spend time on the other side, a witness of the scene, not its catalyst. That’s the end of the world, in one reading. But there are songs that deal with the instant, gratifying moment where the shots are fired. On the Dismemberment Plan’s “8 ½ Minutes”, Travis Morrison gives us that glimpse, launching all the world’s nukes, “hoping it’d kick start something”. Morrison squeals his line, serious and panicked, and in frenzy of that moment. After it, we get to see the end wash over him with a radiant calm. “Was kinda pretty”, he daydreams. Wheel sees neither the moment nor the moment after--to invoke a tense, past present or future, would be dishonest.
I can see why Morrison pressed the button. There’s something terrifying about watching the sequences blow up around us, and so we might laugh about it, make Youtube doublers of Godspeed You! Black Emperor intersected with Glenn Beck getting aroused by a new world war, but we won’t face it. It’s indicative of our fear, and worse, our awareness, of imminence. Mashing up songs about death is a distraction, but Wheel seeks to be an exception, a sometimes funny, always real document of an end time that’s a-comin’. It’s different to how Morrison or Menuck do it, with commentary provided from the beach courtesy of a mischievous, omniscient voice rather than one fraught with panic. On Wheel, Stevenson compiles her fears for a sort of existentialist after-party: whatever happens, and even if we never know why, she can take solace in the fact we saw it coming. The caps are melting and we’re all staying behind to watch it happen.
Wheel isn’t a contented record, necessarily, but it’s gentle in its told-you-sos, shrugging and saying, “well, while we’re still here…” instead of commencing looting. Stevenson readies questions about the end as we pick up the mail and soak in the tub. “California, I tried to warn ya/the earth is gonna break before ya”, she sings on “California”, but she’s not running for higher ground. The key word on Stevenson’s press release might be “struggling”, but the folksy, often cheerful songs she sings on Wheel act as home remedies for feeling empty and trying to place vastness. “You are a speck in a pile of dust and everything you love will turn to dust” is advice proudly given on the clashing but serenely forthcoming “Bells and Whistles”, and in her search for an answer she comes to terms with the non-problem on its own ground: “so stop worrying”.
Stevenson knows how to place the abstract. It’s not about solutions, but the things that substitute for them. There’s uncertainty in the accidentally coded lyrics of Wheel, but it’s framed next to idyllic gestures made in familiar settings: in the lines “I can make you happy, I can make you coffee”, there’s half a truth supplied in the face of a lie Stevenson doesn’t really understand herself. “The Move” is a song that finds Stevenson in the company of just an acoustic guitar and puts her at her sparsest, as she soothes her treading of the unknown with the steady pace of a lover: “I love your brain but I hate it when it pushes me away," she sings, transfixed by the confusing people around her disintegrating world.
It’s a fittingly inviting moment for an album that gives over to its themes well, but us better. We’re let in to Stevenson’s world and watch it crumbling with her. The production, while not markedly different from the clear, close-up Sit Resist, gives Stevenson space in quiet cosy rooms on hushed, guitar-strummed songs like these. Really, though, it’s these opposite numbers that help spin Wheel’s songs in circles. Characters are rooted in Stevenson’s life, bringing her back around no matter how ambiguous their place in the world may be. There’s an accompanying force holding “The Hole” together that eradicates the problems of an unforgiving, unexplainable world; that a person could be “the salty air” in another’s sails, as if without one the other wouldn’t matter, is a reassuring connection to make amid all the disconnect Wheel experiences.
The imagery in “The Hole” is masterful, and Stevenson’s solo performance builds to the metaphor quietly and clearly, sounding like a personal address, from one heart to another. Much like the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, Stevenson is a punk-gone-folk songwriter who hopped genres to find her lyrical footing, and on Wheel she’s able to name objects as they move and move back again, putting things in parentheses and then taking them out, offering to make coffee (if it hasn’t been made already). Her stunning brand of Americana pop translates the 21st century breakdown into something worrying and sweetly touching. “Runner” is played at an exhilarating pace, its choruses steadily intensifying as they multiply, and her stinging refrain, “this summer hurts”, keeps getting repositioned and sweetened. Stevenson wraps her songs tightly in these cycles, best shown by the downcast and beautiful “Every Tense”, which begins with Stevenson’s light guitar picking and becomes an orchestral piece, turning over a new component every time Stevenson commands her band to. “We are gonna disappear," she calmly exhales half way through the song, and it gently envelopes her, the slow drum march carrying her with the current.
“Every Tense” is the saddest song I expect to hear this year, impinged with an unasserted nostalgia that’s worthy to feel, the kind we know can never be got back where we’re going. That process of the unknown underpins Wheel, the where-we’re-going question lodged, but it’s not something Stevenson really attempts to answer. Instead, she turns to us and our summers, resisting the meaning of life in favour of our best days; mail scattered on the floor like we would do well to read it while it was there, or people smoking to stay sane being one of their most valuable traits. It’s not just about what Stevenson is saying on Wheel -- it’s that you can hear her think. Behind the rhetorical metaphysical questions she’s asking and the descriptions of bed-ridden mornings, there’s a confused, sufficiently satisfied person, singing the end of the world while watching it, a little amused no one has before. Stevenson thinks she has none of the answers -- but she at least knows things are changing. They always have been.