As someone who enjoys eavesdropping on conversations in bars and coffee shops, I understand how easy it is to judge other people by hearing snippets of their voices. I have privately exalted the supportive friend who consoles and condemns the mean SOB who demeans his partner’s failings. Mostly being generous, in one’s opinions, has its own rewards. This is also true when reviewing new albums. The assumption is that no one wants to make a bad record. The critic’s job is to judge the music one hears, not to speculate on the one the artist should have created.
In the middle of Bella White‘s second album, Among Other Things, the Canadian singer-songwriter performs “Marilyn”, a song she wrote based on a conversation she heard at a café in Northern California before a soundcheck. A man was complaining to his friends about his wife’s figure after she had given birth to their daughter. White nastily condemns the man and his words. Who knows what exactly he said, but in White’s words: “He said she was cooking him a good dinner / But he wished that she was thinner / Well, I hated that man / And my heart went out to poor Marilyn.”
The man in the café may be tactless, but is that a reason to hate him? One could easily interpret his sentiments as a humblebrag. He declares his wife is a good cook who has become a little chubby. At this point, one could think it is because she samples her food too much. While some people listening to the man in the café may find him vulgar, Bella piles it on. Without further evidence, she adds: “He was a nasty man / He was a foolish man / He was a mean old man.”
White instantly hates the guy and loves the woman, which seems extreme. This bitterness and easy empathy typify her thoughts and feelings throughout the record. Her protagonists and narrators jump to negative assumptions about themselves and others. Their thoughts and actions are burdened by selfishness, poser syndrome, and jealousy. Nobody really gets a break.
“It’s not what I thought it would feel like / The praise that’s seeping in,” she guiltily sings in “Numbers”. “Now to me, the word love has lost all meaning / It’s just an empty sound I thought I’d always known,” she moans on “The Way I Oughta Go”. “How fast people can change their minds / I guess we all share the same ugly / We are all just liars,” she laments on the cut, “Flowers on My Bedside”. Among Other Things is full of such examples and rarely addresses the positives of human behavior.
This negativity seems to be evidence that White’s been hurting. She confesses this on the sad and syrupy “Rhododendron”. The singer looks outside her window and sees the bush in full flower, and not only that, there is a bird’s nest with mom and her baby offspring. However, what White sees in the imaginary future is the robin’s future death and the babies starving. The flowers go unmentioned, but they, too, must have eventually faded and died. Flowers are biological mothers whose ripened ovules are fruited bodies with seeds. Remember, this is what White sees when she looks out her window and sees spring flowers in bloom—death rather than life.
White is a gifted singer and songwriter. She’s ably aided here by talented musicians, including Big Thief‘s guitarist Buck Meek and Nashville singer Erin Rae on backing vocals. Among Other Things is a useful catharsis for one who sees the world through dark glasses. “I’m always tellin’ these sad stories / about the ones who always let me down,” the Canadian sings in “The Best of Me”. But many of us would rather look for the good than presume the bad. The man talking about his wife in the café loves his spouse. A critic looking for the positive in a new recording presumes its good qualities outweigh its pessimistic tone rather than just pointing out the flaws.