One of my favorite semi-forgotten albums in my “collection” (Spotify library) is Giant Drag’s Hearts and Unicorns. Released in 2005, it’s a delightfully immature collection of grungy indie rock fronted by Annie Hardy, who gained a minor amount of notoriety for her “naughty” lyrics, politically incorrect song titles and propensity for talking smack at live shows. She was also a very good songwriter, and on Hearts and Unicorns showed a gift for songs that were melodic and dissonant, which were made even better by her offbeat charisma and humor.
Hardy seemed like she might be the next big thing in indie rock, but she largely disappeared after Hearts and Unicorns. She founded her own record label, made a lot of weird youtube videos, and didn’t release a proper follow-up until 2013’s Waking Up is Hard to Do. By then, Hardy was largely forgotten about, and the album was received with little fanfare. Now she’s back with her first solo release, Rules, and my hope is that this album doesn’t just get ignored or unheard, because it is a remarkable piece of work made under unfathomable circumstances.
In 2015, Hardy had a baby and was apparently ready to settle down and leave music behind. But 17 days later, he died of SIDS. Then, less than a year after that, her partner and father of the child died of a drug overdose.
Hardy’s predicament is so beyond comprehension that it’s amazing to me that Rules even exists. And what I like about this album is that it isn’t some really finely crafted, sophisticated attempt at poetically explaining her scenario. It’s raw, ragged, and real. Hardy has pursued a more mature sound than Hearts and Unicorns, but she is grappling with subject matter that she justifiably doesn’t fully understand yet. Every song feels like a struggle as she tries to figure out why this happened and what she does now.
“Jesus Loves Me” is the most emotional song on the album, as Hardy sincerely sings about her newfound spirituality and references bible verses while backed by piano and strings. “I know Jesus loves me, because my life is miserable and ugly,” she sings. But then, minutes into the song, she lashes out in a seeming non-sequitur: “These days everyone can blow me/Talking shit, acting like they know me/They can laugh, they can all make of me/But I know that Jesus is my homey.” It captures the feeling on this album that Hardy is trying to be grown-up and mature about this, but at the same time is angry and resentful that it happened to her. And so the old Annie Hardy, who was immature and fond of talking trash in the Giant Drag days, makes an appearance.
That song sums up the appeal of Rules and Hardy herself: she isn’t afraid to show her flaws, and they actually become her strength here, because an album made in this circumstance shouldn’t be perfect. Her non-traditional raspy singing voice adds to the anguish and power of her simple lyrics, like on “Want” when she sings “I want my baby back” — a line that takes on a whole new, terrible meaning in this context. The end of that song is my favorite moment of the album, a mournful guitar solo that expresses what Hardy has been through more than words possibly could.
It goes without saying that this is a really depressing album, but there is a bravery and resilience in Hardy’s performance that is inspiring, and makes Rules feel essential.