Dead Horses’ lead singer Sarah Vos’s childhood was fraught with insecurity and uncertainty after her family was expelled from a local Wisconsin church when she was a teenager. Her father long served as the pastor of the church, and the experiences she faced and witnessed are infused in her emotional singing and crisp guitar work alongside bassist Daniel Wolff. The duo’s new album My Mother the Moon was recorded in Nashville but remains attuned to Vos’s experiences growing up, and the duo’s Milwaukee base, in its ability to connect music and community. The album is solid and secure, each track building expressively upon the theme of music and healing amid loss and abandonment.
My Mother the Moon highlights Vos’s personal experiences in her lyrics and singing with to the beautifully arranged folk musicianship in a sparse production by drummer Ken Coomer. The album opens with “Turntable”, a track that directly identifies the prevalence of music in our lives and closes with an elaborate orchestral arrangement on “Ain’t No Difference”. In the moving “A Petal Here, A Petal There”, Vos sings about the pain of memories and the anguish children can endure when parents suffer a loss that deeply affects the entire family. It’s a redemptive track, with a complex music arrangement that compliments the story weaved in the lyrics.
Within a personal narrative that defines My Mother the Moon, Vos and Wolff’s writing tackles both her experiences growing up as well as growing economic inequality in modern American society. “American Poor” highlights the repetitive nature of low-income status, with a style that harkens to Depression-era symbolism and hard work. Adapting those qualities to the 2010s, Vos sings about the disrespect directed to low-paid workers, such as those in the service industry. The song is haunting in its quick tempo and sharp, abrupt halt that segues into a slow exploration of depression and longing in “My Many Days”.
The album’s lead single “Swinger in the Trees” takes inspiration from the Robert Frost poem “Birches” to confront self-isolation. The selection provides a well-known starting point for the song and allows for larger interpretation. A stand-out track, the relevance of isolation when changes occur deepens the emotional consequences of events outside our control, particularly in relation to the childhood experiences that fuel Vos’s lyrics and the album’s genesis. The next track “Darling Dear” deals immediately with a different type of isolation: that from those closest to us, regardless of how much we may share, there is always a capacity for unknowns.
These moments in the album lend to a fresh political tone in the Dead Horses music, connecting the duo to developments in popular music generally over the last year, but nuanced in execution on My Mother the Moon. Described in interviews as reflecting people’s experiences in recent years, the ties between Vos’s personal life to larger themes is exquisite in its execution and in no way overbearing on the album. The political elements are timely in 2018, but will not date this album or diminish any commentary as time progresses.
Title track “My Mother the Moon” and the tracks leading to closer “Ain’t No Difference” shift the mood from sorrowful elements to more uplifting tones, while the music stays consistent. “On and On” incorporates a reality of wrongs committed but moving forward, and “Modern Man” explores the reality her father faced when her family was expelled from the church where he served as pastor. It is another track full of political imagery, ranging from ideology in religion and politics to work and responsibility. Vos highlights the reality that “pain doesn’t go away” and the effects of sleeplessness, all while looking for “the moment where she doesn’t give a fuck,” or the prospect of not caring that ultimately remains uncaptured.
My Mother the Moon concludes with deliberately strummed guitar in “Ain’t No Difference” that competes with orchestration and Vos’s mournful lyrics, before the guitar goes soft and the vocals take center stage. There is darkness heavily present in this track, and its strength is built upon the confrontation across the entire album. A dominant closer, the track demonstrates the totality of the duo’s success on My Mother the Moon. Strong from open to close, the Dead Horses explore the American experience with precision, incorporating musical elements that root the album in historical trends and modern political issues. And within the entirety of the album are resonating elements of Vos’s childhood and personal struggles that connect across generations.