Strand of Oaks
Photo: Merrick Ales / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Strand of Oaks Presses on with ‘In Heaven’

Strand of Oaks’ In Heaven moves through trauma and sees a world where we can imagine something better, and we can even believe we can get there.

In Heaven
Strand of Oaks
Thirty Tigers
1 October 2021

Timothy Showalter, the force behind Strand of Oaks, has confronted significant struggles in his songwriting before. Everyone seems to face these issues right now. Still, as Showalter’s gone through his own personal battles over the past few years, he’s turned his writing for the new album In Heaven toward the other side of the fight, articulating the importance of relationships and with unflinching optimism. Rejoined by some My Morning Jacket members as on 2019’s Eraserland, Showalter backs his viewpoint with a mix of psych, country, and rock to clarify why we need to hang in there.

“I believe that ecstasy happens when we all get together,” Showalter sings to open the album on “Galacticana”, his outward reach clear. The singer doesn’t just express an opinion, but he invites listeners in. From the first words of the album, Showalter’s yearning comes through clearly. Filled internal rhyme and assonance, the songs build around scattered images into a centered search for connection, the crescendo amplifying the urgency of hope.

That sort of brightness runs throughout the album. Showalter hasn’t had it easy over these past few years, but he’s pressed on, looking for the positive possibilities, and as much as In Heaven deals with loss and grief, it’s far more about reunion and connection. “Jimi & Stan” provides an odd reflection with unexpected weight. Showalter imagines his departed cat meeting up with Jimi Hendrix in a “sun-filled room” in the afterlife, the two of them going to concerts and making new friends. The cut’s encouragement has trickles of dark at the edges – Showalter wondering why he sticks around – but it’s a big uplift from a family’s loss.

The singer finds similar comfort as he considers the death of John Prine in “Somewhere in Chicago”, knowing “there’s a blue oasis” out there somewhere. The deeper Showalter digs into his grief, the more he finds to appreciate. The larger challenge comes with the closing number “Under Heaven”, when Showalter tries to comfort his wife after the loss of her mother. Sometimes it feels like it never lets up. “We rise and and fall / And after it all / Only you,” Showalter sings. In the trials, in the isolation, in all of it, he calmly explains where he’ll be, right next to his grieving partner.

The album doesn’t simply deal with trauma. “Sunbathers” takes a more opaque but no less exciting journey to consider how we mythologize our own lives. Exactly how a wooly mammoth can sunbathe or a saber-toothed tiger can smile for the cameras remains unclear. Still, the imagery supports a generous and grateful look at our own pasts. The cut gives way to the violin of “Carbon” and its existential struggles. “Sister Saturn” gives in a little to Showalter’s country-rock side to give listeners time to groove a bit. It may be true that “nothing looks good on a bad day,” but that’s not a reason to give up – it’s a reason to connect.

So goes In Heaven. Showalter’s turned a nightmare couple of years into art that not only moves through the trauma but that invites listeners to come along. In interviews and on social media, Showalter sounds genuinely grateful and welcoming, and he’s managed to capture that outlook on his latest album without any hints of schmaltz. It’s a bleak world, for sure, where heroes, families, and pets leave us too soon. But it’s also one where we can imagine something better, and we can even believe we can get there.

RATING 8 / 10