At the close of 2012, I swear I said to someone that it had been the year of the women – musically, that is. Actually, I swear that I said it to my then-wife. That year had begun for me with the release of Kathleen Edward‘s Voyageur – admittedly not a great album, but with the opening track “Empty Threat”, Edwards promised some warmth was bound to return. 2012, unfortunately, ended with my marriage in near-collapse, and whatever warmth Edwards had promised had been clouded over, and I had survived in the shade with the likes of Sharon van Etten‘s Tramp and Beth Orton‘s comeback Sugaring Season. So when NPRMusic in their 2013 year-in-review talked about last year (2013) being the year of the woman in music, I gloated a bit, thinking I was a year ahead of the curve.
I don’t disagree with their argument; 2013 saw some amazing creative work by women, and I admit that my favorite albums, songs, and discoveries are populated with music by women, while not a single musical disappointment or “meh” of 2013 (of which there were a few) involved a female artist. From Lorde to Lucius, from Valerie June to Neko Case, women again defined the year for me. But to say that this year was the “Year of the Woman” is just silly. Does that mean 2012 was the “Year of the Man”? Will 2014 be the “Year of the Transgender”?
And yet, those women I listed above (and plenty others, like Laura Veirs and Clairy Browne and even the feminine falsetto of Rhye) were my soundtrack for much of 2013, a year that saw my wife leave, the house get sold, me move into an apartment and begin reconciling with the life of the reluctant bachelor. It was the year of the woman, for reasons both uplifting and deeply depressing. I’ve written in this space before how Neko’s album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You came to me at just the right time – the day, in fact, that we closed on our house. An album that pulled no metaphorical punches, The Worse Things Get took residence on the stereo for a solid three months in the late summer, and I felt Neko was speaking for me when she sang about being “swallowed waist deep in the gore of the forest” – if there was a more perfect way to describe depression, I didn’t know it. When “Calling Cards” begins with that simple finger-picking and the haunting reverb off in the distance (it just dawns on me that there’s a touch of mid-80’s U2 in that sound – I hope Neko forgives me for making that comparison) and that muffled trumpet wail, the hairs that stood up on my arms and neck were symbolic of my grief, my isolation, and my desire to find myself again, a challenge I felt Neko understood completely. And when, on “Ragtime,” she roared through the wall of trumpet blare and cymbal crash about being “one and the same” and about “wisdom” and “woe” and “madness,” I felt empowered. Dealing with grief and loss is a whirlwind, a cacophony, but I trust Neko when she concludes, “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”
The Worse Things Get will always hold a special place in my heart as the album that accompanied me through a dark period in my life, a period of intense loneliness and isolation. The album walked that path with me with no judgment, and in fact with empathy. Neko sings so defiantly, so beautifully, so poetically about loss and resilience – I feel she pulled the themes and the musical evocations straight from my muddled brain and reconciled them for me in those twelve tracks. I’m still surprised how The Worse Things Get did not appear on more Best Of lists at year’s end. Mind you, it received plenty of attention, though usually it fell in the 20th to 30th best album range – criminally under-ranked, obviously. But then, perhaps most other listeners and reviewers weren’t embraced by this album as I was, weren’t in the same place in their personal lives that I was. Which is only more proof of how lonely 2013 was for me.
As fall deepened and chilled, and The Worse Things Get was worn out, I bit to all the chatter about the teenage pop sensation Lorde. I don’t normally listen to chart-topping music; to me it seems grossly shallow, over-produced, and way over-hyped. The pop icon is more important than the music, a concept I cannot normally abide. Plus, listening to music in this decade has become a largely individualized, isolating experience, one in which we can pick and choose what we want to hear so exactingly that we cut ourselves off from the larger musical conversation. (see the above paragraph for proof of this) I recognize the paradox I’ve created: were I to listen only to Pop, I would probably be more connected, twittering with Rihanna and her million followers, blogging about the VMAs or sharing YouTube parodies of “Call Me Maybe.” But that music doesn’t speak to me, so to discover Lorde – and to really like her – opens up the possibility of connecting again to the musical world. And Lorde did that for me. Ann Powers over at NPRMusic wrote a compelling piece comparing Lorde to Nirvana, a small part of the larger conversation surrounding Lorde’s hit single “Royals” and the debate it engendered about the excesses and false promises of the New Pop World. Again, it’s a world I conscientiously try to avoid, for all the reasons that Lorde felt compelled to sing about it. Her undermining of Pop’s piggishness and egotism (while rooted firmly within it) was a defiance I love to see, similar to the way Jane Austen used the novel form to subvert the culture. These subversions – these revolutions – I want to see succeed, so I hope Lorde’s message doesn’t get lost in the larger discussion and that Lorde herself doesn’t get chewed up and cast off by the Pop Machine.
I honestly wouldn’t have considered Lorde as a listening choice if I hadn’t first heard San Fermin‘s “Sonsick.” With soaring vocals by Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe (of the Brooklyn-based band Lucius), the song’s pop sensibilities were deepened by a powerful brass section and (again) an outsider’s feel. It was a welcome reprieve from the Taylor Swift that my daughter had forced me to download. (The last half of the year was my cajoling my kids into listening to the likes of Lorde and San Fermin in lieu of Swift, whom my daughter said had replaced Neko Case as her favorite singer, a revelation I found deeply depressing.)
And I wouldn’t have discovered San Fermin without NPRMusic’s Heavy Rotation, which opened me up to a wide variety of music that my beloved local station (WNCW) does not normally play: to name a few: Har Mar Superstar, Houndmouth, and Rhye.
Oh, Rhye – my goodness Rhye. Rhye’s album Woman filled my nights in the first dozen weeks after my wife moved out on Easter Monday. Can an album, can a musician, can a band, be a rebound? If so, Rhye was mine. As spring lengthened and night winds through the window became warm and my bed somehow larger and therefore emptier, the slow rhythms created by Robin Hannibal and the earnestness of Milosh’s voice were a companion in place of the woman with whom I had shared a life for 12 years.
So, yes, 2013 was the year of the woman, and all that represents – the grief and heartache, the confusion and madness, the resilience and defiance, the beauty and joy of womanhood. The woman who had been with me for over a decade moved out, sent my life into the darkest of places, upended my world. The women in music who filled that void walked with me through the darkness, upended my world as well, brought me into moments of intense brilliance and buoyed me in this new reality. All of these women cannot understand how their music has supported me during a year of such loss, yet still I must thank them for all they have given me.