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.