ARTIST: Strand of Oaks
How many great albums owe some of their success to a great origin story? The clearest example in the last decade is surely Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, whose maudlin harmonies were given weight by a compelling tale: after a terrible breakup and a terrible illness, a frustrated musician relocates to a cabin in the woods. There, he lives off of the land, heals himself, and pours his soul into a haunting masterpiece. Whether true or not, this is how the album was framed; the listener couldn’t avoid the narrative’s powerful impact. We similarly forgive Neil Young’s piercing yowl when listening to Tonight’s the Night, knowing that it was birthed in the aftermath of two deaths that affected all of the musicians involved.
So, too, goes the story of HEAL, the most recent effort from Philly by-way-of Midwest musician Timothy Showalter, who performs as Strand of Oaks. After creative stagnation and personal chaos, including a strained marriage, devastating fire, and a struggle with substance abuse, Showalter got a record deal and used it to “heal” through the unbridling of his creativity. His catharsis would be making a balls-out classic record as expansive in its sound as it was emotionally precise. And he got pretty close.
Though brutally honest, HEAL is an uneven record featuring fantastic highs and some unconvincing choices. Take the opening track, which blows the door off the barn with the tornado fingers of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis. Unfortunately, the brilliant guest-spot is emptier above what sound like programmed drums (fairly unimaginative ones at that). If you’re going to have a guitarist that can command lighting like J. Mascis, you can do better than to accentuate his lead with the same thud-thud-thud kick that hammers mindlessly throughout the track. Just ask the man himself to get behind a kit!
Showalter is nonetheless able to effectively dovetail central theme and sound, evoking the “magic” of musical discovery he references in the opening track. We can practically see the odd origami of cassette tape liner notes unfurling in Showalter’s young grip on the cool tile of an Indiana basement: Phil Collins; Bruce Springsteen; Dire Straits. One track after another on HEAL evokes something classic yet hard to articulate, masked homages to Showalter’s canon.
In the album’s thrilling opening sequence, Showalter deftly moves between his influences, showcasing a diverse vocal skill set. He complements the dark electro vibe of title track “HEAL” with a percussive and direct performance. He goes the other way on the falsetto-fabulous “Same Emotion”, a track whose eponymous hook is blazing and infectious. The soft 8-bit synth lead fits snugly beside the other 80’s-Pop textures the record opens with.
That HEAL peaks so early in its arc is ultimately one of its great flaws. The album’s best track is its fourth, lead single “Shut In”, and features Showalter performing at his most raw. His straining, throaty voice aims for “Midwestern Boss”, in front of drums that explode with a live sound befitting the song’s grandiosity. In the background beautiful guitar leads fire in opposing tangents. When the guitar solo rips, it’s a culmination that uplifts the listener.
But just as we soar, we feel the gravity of reality yoke us downward. Showalter revels in what is more self-loathing than healing. He needs. He wallows in teenage angst. He experiences fleeting moments of alcohol-soaked peace. But when Showalter triumphantly sings “We try in our own way / to get better / even if we’re alone”, it’s with as much forbearance as acceptance; we may get better, but we are alone. The light, even when it shines, is miserly.
It can be a trudge through down-tempo tracks that take us from the record’s emotionally complex first half to its far more languorous and depressive second half. The heaviness begins to encumber a few minutes into the Songs:Ohia homage “JM”, and continues to strain through “Mirage Year”, especially when listening to the lyrically imagined infidelity of Showalter’s wife. It’s almost like he’s dumping his baggage on the listener rather than healing himself through song.
By the time the rousing, Thin Lizzy-inspired penultimate track “For Me” arrives, it’s too late; the connective thread has worn. The listener has been pummeled with too much negativity and self-loathing. We’ve listened to Showalter beat himself up, delve into the morass of his damaged relationships, call himself fat, mean, drunk, drinking, getting loaded, getting wasted. He calls himself an “abomination”, in the album’s M83-influenced closer. It may have been inspirational for Showalter to make this record, but it’s a drain to listen to.
Showalter should nevertheless be credited for how unflinchingly he looks inward. Few artists would be brave enough to so brazenly expose themselves and their flaws to their audience. It’s a commendable dedication to creative growth, as well, as Showalter was able to expand and explore new spaces and styles. There’s scarcely a single acoustic strum on HEAL. It’s an evolutionary album, and a career left-turn that recalls J. Tillman’s transformation into Father John Misty. Both artists traded in a sound that was hushed and melancholic. Whereas Misty now embodies sarcasm’s muse, Strand of Oaks’ shift has been taken an opposite course, toward ruthless self-examination. But HEAL can’t be called navel-gazing; it’s self-administered surgery. As one might expect, this doesn’t always work to the listener’s benefit—after all, it takes a particular kind to enjoy watching operations from the observation deck.
Few albums are able to balance how much they give and take while asking a lot from the listener; successful examples include Kid A and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Though this equilibrium is askew on HEAL, that should not detract from how much it really does reward the listener. It’s consistently catchy, and by the 400th time you sing, “I was livin’ in the same emotion” to yourself, even those saccharine production choices seem more like idiosyncrasies than faults. Sometimes narratives are too well-formed to pass the bullshit detector, but Showalter’s relentlessness helps shape the record’s image into something that rings true: truly desperate, truly dysfunctional, and truly wholehearted. It doesn’t feel like healing, but it feels.
“I was born in the middle, maybe too late. Everything good had been made”.