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Pop music is an ideal vehicle for emotional catharsis — for the confessional plunge into anguish, the gathering of strength and the phoenix-like rise to empowered new heights. But while such songs can feel like potent, highly individualized expression, their impact can also be interpreted in vastly different ways. Robin James, author of Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, would describe performances that make dramatic displays of overcoming psychological, spiritual or bodily wounds as reinforcing a social hierarchy that prizes resilience. She emphasizes that when it's marginalized people who are doing the singing, it can have the effect of "normalizing" what they've endured socially and politically because of their race, gender, sexuality or class as "ultimately innocuous damage that they are individually responsible for overcoming." By extension, she would say that it's possible for pop-style empowerment to trivialize struggles borne out of inequality. She's envisioned a musical alternative: "If resilience is the norm, is melancholy the way to disrupt it?"
Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Chastity Brown wrestles with that question in her own way on her new album, Silhouette Of Sirens, a work of brooding soul eloquence, alt-rock wiriness, atmospheric pop sweetening and folk-inflected naturalness that, at its quieter moments, has a kindred spirit in Meshell Nedegeocello's Bitter, a masterpiece of piercing introspection released at the end of the '90s.
When Brown arrived on the national Americana scene half a decade ago, she was already acutely aware that being a biracial woman made her stand out in that musical space, and her thinking about social statement-making has evolved continually since. Last year (much of which she spent touring alongside Ani DiFranco) she told me, "Just being a person of color, a queer woman of color for that matter, is freaking political. I don't even have to say anything. I just leave my house, and that's a statement. Or I practice good eating habits and I exercise — radically loving myself is also political. I see that now, and my hope is that that comes out in my work. There's stories to tell other than just the specifics of politics or my certain stances on things." In the press materials accompanying her new album, Brown also spoke of processing traumatic experiences in her songwriting.
She trains the focus of these 10 songs on the chasm between fundamental needs, desires and profound disappointments, sounding as patient with the jaggedness of emotions as she is resolute about rendering them with clarity and candor. In "Pouring Rain," a propulsive soul number with a grunge-y guitar attack, she demands a lover's affection, even as she braces herself to be let down. "Whisper," which builds from acoustic sparseness into a sinuous groove, is a sensual plea for intimacy that's laced with wariness. In "Lost," the lulling cadence and elegant orchestration set off Brown's spiky sense of alienation. Immersed as she is in articulating those feelings, she also pauses to acknowledge the lens through which her expression might be viewed. "What's the world see?" she asks. "A pile of ashes or a bird that's flown?"
In the pensive, churning piano ballad "Carried Away," she fashions a relational confrontation into a mantra. "Look what you did to my heart," she murmurs several times in a row, softly intensifying the insinuation with her syncopation of the low-slung melody. Then she turns to soothing herself, mediating on a pattern prone to end in pain: "You get carried away, then you fall." Catharsis is nowhere to be found; she's doing the emotional labor of preparing herself for inevitable repetitions of the cycle.
There's a simmering, acidic quality to the rootsy blues-rock number "Lies." Brown clenches and releases her syllables, summoning a peppery, purposeful edge as she rebukes and rejects a deceiver and curses feelings of betrayal. Sometimes when she plays the song live, she explains that she wrote it thinking of the Detroit pensioners who worked toward a stable future, only to have it ripped out from under them in their city's financial collapse. By offering that context, she drives home how she's teasing out connections between the personal and the political, the individual and the systemic, the up-close and the abstract.
That's a whole lot trickier work than outright protest or inscribing pop hooks with emotional triumphs, but Brown is more than up to the task. And the voice that she's developed is one that we really need right now.