Half Waif's 'The Caretaker' Is a Small Art Pop Treasure
Half Waif's second album, The Caretaker, takes a microscope and a scalpel to the mysteries and wonders of the quotidian, to great effect.
27 March 2020
The Caretaker, Nandi Rose's second album as Half Waif, the follow-up to 2018's equally beautiful and accomplished Lavender, is a deceptive artifact, beautiful and shimmering, eschewing grand statements in favor of a plaintive series of interior miniatures whose common denominators are the throughline of Rose's purifying vocal and an impeccably curated set of observations about everyday life, affirming and poignant simultaneously. The apparent slightness of the work, comprising 11 songs barely more than a half-hour in length, is belied by the steely and fearless gaze Rose applies to her chosen vignettes and the depth of exploration applied to everyday scenes and moments. And while the album feels like it could at any time take flight into epic romance, dancefloor eruption, or pop hedonism, it remains firmly grounded in its own sense of emotional and physical place.
The Caretaker is a title that contains nuance and subtlety reflective of the album's little secrets. It suggests a simple role, that of taking care, of another person, a place, perhaps a home. But there is a resonance here beyond the surface meaning, suggesting that we should take great care in the way that we comport ourselves in a committed relationship. Whether romantic, familial, platonic, or otherwise, we need to ensure that we cherish and nurture the hearts that may have been entrusted to us, but also that we make sure to nurture our own along the way. The Caretaker cautions us to appreciate the fragility of what we might take for granted, to embrace our moments of communion and autonomy equally. It acknowledges that everything we have could dissolve with a moment of folly, of carelessness, of selfish reaching after something better, something illusory beyond our immediate surroundings.
The Caretaker posits that grown-up life, while it is complicated, doesn't have to be confounding if we appreciate what we have been granted, and if we work continuously to nurture what is precious to us, even if it may seem ordinary, even dull, and sometimes less than earth-shatteringly exciting. There is great emotional heft and even a spiritual depth in these minor backwaters of experience. We underestimate them at our peril, and it is the nuances and inlets of these minor backwaters that the album so sensitively and sensibly explores.
The opener "Clouds Rest" sets a tone that the rest of the album maintains, somehow managing expectations and promising grander gestures that it deliberately withholds, while nevertheless hitting numerous emotional highs and inflicting not a few body blows along the way. It's an elegant and delicate balance that many pop artists fail to navigate as gracefully. "Going nowhere fast now," the opening lyric, constitutes a kind of mission statement for the album as a whole, except that we go nowhere at less than a breakneck speed for most of the time. The entrance of Rose's gorgeously unvarnished voice with these lines feels almost monastic in its asceticism.
But the first verse confessional both recalls the opening of some tantalizingly familiar pop classics while refusing to cash in those chips with the kind of hook or refrain that a more radio-friendly act might inevitably deliver. "I've been running uphill / Calm and focused / Dragging my hips in the wind / Swollen with promise." Nor does Rose seek refuge in any kind of dancefloor explosion that this early gesture suggests as a possibility, choosing instead to plow a middle furrow between the radio and the club, a furrow that the album as a whole explores and excavates to great effect. In this respect, and if you are looking for hooks to hang this album on beyond those that the music provides, we might say that Half Waif exists in equipoise between Julia Holter and Haim, less arch than the former and more substantial than the latter.
Rose's concentration on mundane moments, exploring the delicate balance of domestic life held in suspension, is the primary source of the album's small perfection. Beauty is hard-won, simple, and complex simultaneously. The simplicity of the everyday moment disguises an emotional depth and complexity that may not be suggested by the surface appearance of apparently boring domestic activities. This sublime paradox is nowhere better instantiated than on the exquisite banality of "Ordinary Talk", perhaps the album's apotheosis and symbolic marker.
Rose pleads for the right to carve out an autonomous space within the potential suffocation of a domestic partnership. "Sitting in the dark / Dreaming up a song / Crying in my coffee / Doing it all wrong / Everybody knows / It's Ordinary talk." This plea for a recognition of the need for space in the interstices of a relationship, along with an acknowledgment of the everyday sublime, is the basis for the album's genius, a kind of plainsong that points out a depth of beauty and meaning in what is apparently humdrum. That forces a moment of recognition in the listener, an acknowledgment of those important little moments, along with an accompanying acknowledgment of how we may take them for granted or actually chafe against the boredom we may think we're experiencing, where this is the contentment we might cherish a little more, instead of straining after greener pastures where illusory excitement may lie.
The album succeeds best in these small moments where hidden complexity and poignancy reside, and is less successful when it strains toward more epic statements. "Siren" is a case in point. The parameters of the album's conceit are rattled and ruptured by a final key change that ventures into widescreen territory when our bliss was already to be found in the closeup and the smaller gestural moments of its surrounding songs. But this is a rare misstep.
Consider, for example, the lovely ambiguity of "My Best Self". "Be the one you wanna be / See how you want to be seen / Feel the love of who you're with / Even if you're all you need." This is where contentment and perhaps even true happiness may reside, in a recognition that this can be enough. Even while we are aware of our loneliness in the moments of our greatest intimacy, cognizant of the big adventures we might be foregoing by choosing more ordinary happiness. "Feel the love of who you're with / Be the one you want to be." That is Rose's wonderfully simple and simultaneously elusive key to picking our way through the thickets of adult life, a way to embrace our choices and avoid the myriad midlife crises of what we now, regrettably, have come to call FOMO.
The Caretaker does not only apply a magnifying glass to the intricacies of domestic relations, as "In August" attests. In this lovely, delicate, and somehow still fierce and fearless song, Rose takes stock of a friendship through all of its seasons, lamenting the shortcomings of both parties but always stopping short of outright judgment, instead posing questions to be pondered. Another friendship is forensically but discreetly dissected in "Brace", whose title is brilliantly multivalent, suggesting both a bonding and a constriction at the same time.
The human connection with another is here figured as both a joining of two people's kindred spirits while also acknowledging how we can gird ourselves against another once we feel that the original bond has been compromised. So goes trust and mistrust, and so goes life in a small town that we might feel is holding us back, as Rose adds still another layer to the already complex trope of the song's title. As you can see, she is working at a high level of both particular life experience and lyrical abstraction simultaneously. We should savor such sophistication in our songwriters, especially in such times of intellectual benightedness.
One of the album's many other highlights is "Blinking Light", perhaps an intimation of mortality, or at the very least ephemerality, suggesting by the title and image whose exact provenance is slightly unstable, perhaps the blinking light of an unheard message, the flickering of a star or the insistent annoyance of a broken traffic light, or a radio tower at night, all reminders of the attention we are asked to pay to the world while simultaneously trying to attend to our own inner alarms and promises, flashing on and off in our consciousness. And whereas "Brace" might be a companion piece to "In August", "Blinking Light", in turn, is of a piece with the later "Generation".
"Generation" ponders the passing of another year. While the song's trope of light as a beacon, warning, reassuring reminder of signal of alarm, it then spills over into the following and aforementioned "Brace", a stately and gorgeous apostrophe. The listening experience is not as complicated as this attempt to depict it might seem. Still, we should acknowledge the interconnectedness of these songs as a part of the album's mode of operation, and of how it signifies, by association, by relationships between images as figures for the complex and recurring relationships and connections between people. In this way, Nandi Rose weaves a quite brilliant human tapestry.
And so, over a scant half-hour we move through seasons, if not in a linear fashion. Summer, fall, winter, spring, all swirl around in the album's consciousness until we find ourselves at the rather quietly devastating storm of "Generation". We close in on the end of the album, in a "season of rain", poised on the cusp of another birthday, the turn of another year before proceedings close with the diminuendo of the closing "Window Place". And as the album opened seeing the world through a glass darkly with "Clouds Rest", our vision partially obscured, so "Window Place" offers another partial view, illuminated by the "morning star" and then by the "sweetest light", Yet "Window Place" is aware of pending winter darkness, all of these images symbolic of our continually comprised view of a bigger picture as we are confronted with smaller scenes and obstructed views. In between those two bookends, we are treated to some rare treasures, both lyrical and aural.
Thus, the album weaves its wonderful spell, twinning one song with another, images trailing, later recalled, all in the service of a mature and satisfying thematic whole. Thus is a body of work constructed, thoughtfully, gracefully, intelligently, serious without ever becoming cynical, dealing deftly and lightly with subject matter that might become leaden in less capable hands. And because its subject matter is serious, this album might well make you cry. You might then find yourself confused about why it made you cry because you shouldn't be brought to tears by the idea of, for example, folding laundry, which is one of the activities listed in what might be the album's touchstone song, "Ordinary Talk".
But if you once took folding laundry for granted and then that moment became subsequently freighted with regret and overloaded with emotional attachment in a kind of Proustian way, then folding laundry, or the idea of it might well make you cry. So, you should forgive yourself. If you are still folding laundry and possibly resenting it, because you feel trapped in domestic drudgery and that it is holding you back from achieving your dreams, perhaps take a moment and appreciate the wonder of these small moments. Easily the joy of the everyday can slip from your grasp until you find yourself folding laundry alone, wondering where it all went wrong, repenting at your leisure.
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