Thoughts on Widowspeak’s “Plum” and The Nature of Success

Molly Hamilton of Widowspeak wrote an interesting article for The Talkhouse about her experience as a musician who is currently unemployed and job-hunting while reckoning with what the notion of “success” means for an artist at her level. Widowspeak is in a position a lot of bands I’ve liked for a long time find themselves in: they are successful in the sense that they have an audience, and their music is getting out there to a degree, but they also aren’t gaining massive critical acclaim or hitting huge levels of popularity. Now that the band is 10 years and five albums deep, it’s also hard to see them gaining much more momentum. There’s an endless churn of new artists who are perceived as more exciting than this band, and they’re the ones who will be the target of any kind of hype.

Her article strikes a balance of honestly articulating her plight without it devolving into self-pity. Hamilton doesn’t feel like she’s owed anything, but at the same time, it’s easy to relate to her struggle as someone who puts her heart into this band while not really profiting or getting high praise from the most influential tastemakers. Some of Hamilton’s thoughts, both in this article and on the band’s Twitter account, informed my writing about Taylor Swift’s album — just the frustration I feel that a rich celebrity can pretend to be indie and she gets all the love and excitement from the people who are supposed to be supporting artists like Hamilton, who is instead job-hunting and pondering whether it’s worth continuing to make music. And of course, for every band like Widowspeak that makes it this long and is able to put out a few albums, you can imagine how many talented artists have to quit because it’s just not economically feasible to be in a band.

I relate to this band on a much more micro level: I’ve put a lot of what could be considered “work” into this blog, for basically nothing in return except a feeling of pride I get when I write something I feel is particularly good or when I look back and see how much I’ve improved. I’m past the point where I can cling to some fantasy that this is going to “take off” and I’m ever going to really connect with a real readership. Writing this has meant confronting the awkward reality that no one really cares what I think, and that the kind of music writing I enjoy producing and reading is not a remotely marketable or profitable enterprise (also, that I’m probably not very good at it). So I’ve moved to mostly finding internal validation and doing the best I can, but of course there are times where it’s like “why bother.” Notably, posts like this about a band like Widowspeak are basically the blog equivalent of ratings poison. If it’s not a hot take, or about an artist a ton of people know, it usually ends up disappearing into the echo chamber void. Like Hamilton, I’m not delusional about the broad appeal of writing some mediocre posts about obscure music, but it’s still hard not to be frustrated at the general state of the industry, which is so celebrity-driven and often seems to punish thoughtful, worthwhile work.

I realize this is rather meandering, and anyone who’s made it this far is like “talk about the music, already, no wonder nobody reads this” but all of this is cooked into Widowspeak’s new album, Plum. Like all albums by this band, it’s in a well-defined country/shoegaze zone, with the pleasant reverbed guitar from Robert Earl Thomas and Hamilton’s vocals, which remain honey-sweet and the main appeal of the band. In some respects, Widowspeak are a victim of their own consistency: their sound has never evolved on the surface, and they aren’t outwardly ambitious, which makes their music somewhat unexciting. But the band has quietly made consecutive albums (Expect Their Best was one I loved in 2017) that smartly use that sound to their advantage, with lyrics that can sneak up on listeners who are lulled in by their gorgeous sound.

Hamilton has said she wanted to write more directly on this album, and the songs on Plum are straight-forward, conveying her anxieties about work and life in a way that is relatable because she is putting her feelings out there so honestly. “Breadwinner” (which I already covered when it was released as a single) and “Money” each deal with the notions of success mentioned in her article, and the difficulty of trying to profit in this environment while staying true to yourself. The sharpest song is probably “The Good Ones,” which has a darker sound and is a blunt reflection on privilege and feeling like you should be thankful for what you have, even as you desire more. The chorus, “you’re one of the good ones,” is a familiar reassuring line a lot of people tell themselves, and it shows the self-awareness that runs through this album.

Like I mentioned in the “Breadwinner” post, this album serves as a case study for why there is still a difference between true indie artists and pop celebrities, regardless of what the “music is music” crowd wants to say. Plum is effective in part because Hamilton’s lyrics are real and come from actual experience, and that also makes her singing more moving. I don’t necessarily need to directly relate to everything I listen to, or entertain the possibility that the artists would be friends with me or are similar to me, but there is feeling in this music that can’t be constructed.

Nothing on Plum is too challenging or adventurous (listen to that No Joy album if you want that), but in typical Widowspeak form, it’s music that is satisfying to listen to because it’s such a well-realized version of their cozy little niche. While Hamilton’s lyrics contain a lot of self-doubt, the actual sound of the band is self-assured. After so many years together, Widowspeak at this point know who they are, and while that might not make them super-exciting or popular, they continue to succeed on their own terms.

A Whole Not-So-New Mess

Angel Olsen’s newest release, Whole New Mess, is a science experiment in album form. It serves as the control group to last year’s All Mirrors, which was my album of the year and one I was pretty much obsessed with, to the point that I briefly became an Angel Olsen “stan” and was beginning to prepare for an existence of coordinating harassment campaigns of her online detractors and doxing critics who didn’t breathlessly praise her music to my standards. In the end, I decided that life wasn’t for me, mostly because it just seems like a lot of work. But the point is, I liked the album a lot.

What I loved about All Mirrors was its grand, big stage feeling, which came from its elaborate and showy orchestral arrangements. I felt it accomplished something seemingly contradictory: while heavy production is often used to hide a singer’s lack of talent and ideas, in this specific case it actually elevated Olsen’s singing and material, and it felt like a massive leap forward from her more lo-fi music. This makes it very interesting that Olsen is now releasing this album, which is a stripped-down version of the songs from All Mirrors, allowing listeners to hear it on a smaller scale, separate from that album’s somewhat polarizing stylistic choices.

My initial gut reaction to Whole New Mess was that it seems like a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist — its presentation could be interpreted as being the more honest, soul-baring version of All Mirrors (and some have interpreted it that way), but that album already had those traits, just in a different way than usual. I reject the premise that music with less production and fewer instruments is inherently more genuine or real. After listening to it more, though, I don’t believe that was Olsen’s intention: this is understood better as a companion to the original, one that I’m sure some listeners will prefer, and those who don’t will have their appreciation for All Mirrors deepened even further by these versions. It’s also, if nothing else, a useful tool for debate, and whichever one you like more probably says something interesting about your taste.

Whole New Mess erases any doubt that the strength of All Mirrors was about more than just production tricks. Olsen’s songs with minimal accompaniment still jump out, as does her singing, and the songs feel surprisingly complete. “Lark,” the dazzling, almost structureless opener to last year’s album is presented as “Lark Song” here, and even without the epic strings that sounded like fireworks, it’s an affecting, dramatic song. “We Are All Mirrors” is the reimagined version of the (former) title track, and it’s still a highlight, as it’s Olsen’s lyrics, singing, and writing that made it one of my favorite songs of the last few years. A couple new songs are mixed in: “Whole New Mess” and “Waving, Smiling” are Roy Orbison style minimal ballads that fit more with Olsen’s older work and are hard to imagine fitting on All Mirrors the way it was presented.

Since it’s clear that Olsen’s songwriting holds up regardless of how it’s produced, the question then becomes whether the ambitious sound of All Mirrors improved on these versions. And I’m sticking to my guns on this.  These are great songs in any form, but they deserved to be on the big stage and presented with the splendor and majesty of last year’s album. Listening to Whole New Mess gave me a newfound appreciation for Olsen’s talent, but also made me recognize how much the production choices filled out and enhanced her songs, turning them from the minimal folk-rock heard here into cinematic, immersive showcases. The stripped-down versions lose a lot of the fun of All Mirrors, which was hearing an artist plunge into new musical territory while pushing their talent to epic heights. They also don’t have that fascinating tension between the dense sound and the intimate lyrics and performance. Most of all, what’s missing on Whole New Mess is the feeling of hearing something monumental that couldn’t be easily replicated by anyone else. There are tons of solitary lo-fi folk records, but there is only one All Mirrors, which is what makes it Olsen’s most towering achievement.

No Joy’s “Motherhood” Goes Where No Shoegaze Has Gone Before

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this No Joy album. Guitarist Laura Lloyd left the band after 2015’s More Faithful, leaving it as a solo project for Jasamine White-Gluz, who spent the last few years experimenting with her sound on very hit-or-miss EPs. Her music started leaning into influences like trip-hop and nu-metal, and it triggered the old fogey within me that thinks change is scary and bad. This particularly comes out with shoegaze, which I love in part because it has this formula that has been iterated on forever: one part loud guitars, another part soft, breathy vocals, a touch of subtle melody. There are tons of bands every year trying their own spin on it, and it’s fun to hear the different takes on a familiar concept. There’s also a comfort in knowing a certain amount of releases every year will sound just the way I like it, no matter what else is happening in music or the world.

The daringness of Motherhood, which has finally arrived from the lab after all those EP experiments, is how it refuses to adhere to all of these shoegaze tropes. White-Gluz doesn’t want to sound familiar: she wants to do something new, and she succeeds in making an album that legitimately sounds like nothing else, yet is also still definitively No Joy. She has moved beyond labels or definitions and in some ways created her own style of music.

Motherhood is full of songs that conceptually probably started with the words “what if.” Sounds, genres, and influences that have never been in the same song before collide repeatedly, but in a way that is cohesive and not something that sounds like an empty mash-up. White-Gluz enlists her sister, Alissa (who is the vocalist for death metal band Arch Enemy) on “Dream Rats,” which features her growling vocals, punishing noise, thunderous beats, and a shimmering synth part along with Jasamine’s uncanny light voice, which remains a staple of No Joy’s sound. It’s a mix of beauty and ugliness and plain strangeness that all somehow coheres into a poppy, addictive song. And that’s just a glimpse of the exhilarating creativity running throughout the album.

The secret part of No Joy’s success that I overlooked previously, when I was so focused on their guitar sound and the shoegaze formula, is that White-Gluz has a real knack for off-kilter hooks. She makes songs that are difficult to stop listening to, in part because they’re so different and hard to figure out. “Four” starts with a loud guitar riff, then randomly drifts into an entrancing trip-hop excursion featuring the sound of a baby and some looping half-whispered vocals. Nothing about it makes sense to me, and I have no idea how she thought to put all these sounds together. She says it was a love-letter to music she loved in the late 90s, but that doesn’t explain how she has made everything fit and feel like her own style. A frequent thought I had while listening to this was “I have no idea what this is, but I wish there was more of it.”

Not since Bon Voyage by Melody’s Echo Chamber has an album in this shoegazey realm captured so much imagination and been so willingly eccentric. It’s like a surreal late-90s time capsule mixed with forward-thinking pop, and it is so fun to hear an album willing to take the listener on a journey into unexpected territory. It even has some comprehensible lyrics from the band for a change, about (you guessed it) motherhood and White-Gluz’s feelings as a woman in her 30s who feels the pressure to have kids (the baby in “Four” also feels like a nod to this theme). But mostly, this is a musical thrill ride and listeners who are on board with its strange, adventurous style might have a hard time wanting to get off it.