Artist: Brooke Waggoner
In Brief: Brooke Waggoner’s “mad composer” vibe continues to intrigue as it did on Originator, but I miss the choral backing vocals and the more aggressive material from the front half of that album. Sweven feels uneven and disjointed as a result of the starker sound.
I’ve decided that Brooke Waggoner exists at the tripoint where the realms of cutesy indie pop (think Katie Herzig), haunting piano pop (think Tori Amos), and classical music meet. At times she seems like she’d be happy composing sparse, open-ended neo-classical pieces that needed no lyrics to explain themselves, but then I think about what an important the elliptical and sometimes even mystical imagery in her lyrics can play in several songs, and the surprisingly brief lengths of some of them, and I just don’t know if that’s a fair statement. She’s a musician trapped between worlds, I guess.
The boundary between those two worlds was much more readily visible on her previous album, Originator, which hit me right out of the gate with the mad genius of several instrumentally dense and extremely catchy “pop” tunes that let me know she was happy to hook my ear but wasn’t going to play by conventional radio rules. The much quieter piano ballads in the back half of that album were a surprising retreat given the strong start, but I got the sense that this might have been Waggoner’s core style and the front half was her breaking out of her shell and trying something new. Sweven, released in the early weeks of 2016, has its fair share of experimentation, but it backs way off on the up-tempo stuff. Maybe it’s a conscious effort to avoid being courted by bigger labels who might seek to smooth out some of her quirks. I’m really not sure. I know I’m still captivated by that playful and curious tone of her voice and the interesting places that her piano melodies often go to, but I’ll be honest and say that I miss the larger-than-life choirs, the big drums and orchestral arrangements, etc. that made my favorite tracks on Originator so worthy of repeat plays. Sweven has a lot going for it in several of its individual songs, but much like the back half of Originator, despite the almost uniformly light tone, it feels disjointed, like she’ll start off with one idea and then play it out in two minutes or so, get bored with it, and jump to something completely different. On an album that’s mostly downtempo, that can lead me to wonder if there’s a point to it all when nothing seems to lead logically into anything else. There are beautiful moments – and even a rare, upbeat, catchy tune (that ironically isn’t about anything remotely happy, but that was true of some of the best stuff on her last record) – but despite a somewhat unifying lyrical theme, the music just doesn’t feel cohesive.
The overall theme of Sweven is probably one of the only aspects of the record that makes sense to me. A lot of these songs deal with aging, from the wide-eyed naivete of being a young starving artist all the way up through the more sobering challenges of adulthood, old age, and eventually death. The fragility of the music makes sense in that context, but I still feel like some of these songs might have been more memorable if she had explored their moods and melodies for a bit longer before moving on to the next thing. I feel like in critiquing this, I’m contradicting myself, because I’m saying the songs are both too slow and too short. Fixing one problem would likely make the other one worse, for all I know. It’s probably best to stop overanalyzing and just dive into the songs at this point – I wanted to come up with a better segue before doing that, but given the record I’m writing about, perhaps it’s best to just be abrupt.
I like the chimes that lead this one off – they have a mysterious aura to them, like you’ve just stepped through a curtain of beads into a hidden alcove of a funky old bookstore. They’re more of a sound effect than anything that ties directly into the music, which is a low-key, keyboard-driven groove with some plucked strings in the background. It’s a bit of an unassuming way to start things off compared to “Shiftshape” on her last album, but I like that she leads with honesty, vulnerability, and a penchant for wordplay and alliteration: “Tempest in a teacup overblown/Don’t want to be a fraud, a fink, a foe.” As with most of the album, her thoughts are more elliptical than direct, but I get the general sense that she’s trying to communicate a desire for authenticity, knowing that the worst sin she can commit as an artist is to be fake or insincere.
2. Widow Maker
This, sing-songy, organ-driven track is the closest Sweven gets to the sound of Originator‘s front half, bringing in more aggressive drums and a bit of a classic/psychedelic rock feel for a bizarrely whimsical about a woman whose husband died from a sudden heart attack. At just under two minutes, she’s wasting no time here, and yet the song is tightly structured enough that it doesn’t feel incomplete in its abruptness. There’s even time for a short reading from a medical text explaining exactly what a heart attack is. It’s at once amusing and terrifying – probably a good reminder to go get the old cholesterol levels checked again.
3. Egg Shells
Putting a piano instrumental, however brief, this early in the album, feels like a bit of a jarring change of pace. I suppose you could argue based on the title and the rambling old man reciting “Humpty Dumpty” at the beginning of it that it’s thematically related because it’s about the fragility of life. I’m hearing a bit more playfulness than fragility as her fingers glide across the keys, the notes plinking and plunking like gentle raindrops, and her left hand occasionally out of sync with her right just to add to the intentional messiness of it all. It’s a cute little distraction, but I’d have saved something like this for a breather later in the album, personally.
4. Pennies and Youth
One of the more “conventional” pop ballads on the project is up next, and it feels to me like the most fully realized track out of the twelve, due to the way its melody instantly captivates me, its verse and chorus flow so nicely into each other without it ever feeling rushed or disjointed, and the organic yet efficient way that the piano, acoustic guitar, drums, and strings all lock together to create a delicate balance between whimsy and regret. it’s hard to tell whether Brooke is lamenting or justifying being in her twenties and blowing most of her disposable income on a daily coffee habit and other spur-of-the-moment purchases. You could argue that these are the things that fuel an artist’s inspiration, so I’m not sure whether she’s embracing or rejecting them as she sings “Take hold of my life/And waste it no longer more.” it’s an instant standout that, unlike most of my favorites from Originator, doesn’t need to rely on aggression to hook me right away.
I tend to think of this song as an intimate dance between two people – its piano melody and lightly swaying time signature remind me a bit of “From the Nest”, one of my absolute favorites from her last album, but this one’s definitely sparser, bringing in a swelling string instrument or two to add to the romance, but otherwise keeping it light on the backing instrumentation. At some points her piano playing is similar to the style heard on “Egg Shells” – tempo here is more of a guideline than a strict rule, so the overall pace of the song will subtly ebb and flow as the emotional weight of it rises and falls. The lyrics seem to lament leaving or being tempted to leave someone who was constantly faithful to her, but with two short verses and a very simple chorus, a lot is left open to interpretation.
The title track is more of a melancholy moonlit sonata. It’s sung to a “Little Lou”, almost as if it’s a bittersweet lullaby urging the child to to cherish the precious moments that occur in their lifetime. The lyrics once again border on the whimsical through Brooke’s use of alliteration: “The sliver in the sweven’s silver sway.” (Nope, I still don’t understand what “sweven” means. Perhaps it weight nwine?) At times it’s pretty, but there are so many elements of it that are barely noticeable in the background, particularly the vaguely unsettling hum of the electric guitar, and the ghostly choral vocals. This is the one time I can recall actually hearing a choir on this album, and I’m kind of annoyed that they’re buried so far back. It fits the intended ambiance of the song, but I feel like I want them to stick around and be more noticeable on a few other tracks, and that never happens.
7. Two of a Kind
This track, tied with “Pennies and Youth” for the album’s longest at a mere 4:07, also feels like one of the record’s more complete and compelling tracks, though it doesn’t quite have the dramatic build that some of my other favorites do. It’s notable for being one of the few acoustic guitar-based tracks on a keyboard-dominated record. The calming effect of the gentle fingerpicking is like sitting beside a babbling brook (pun not initially intended, but sure, I’ll go with it). Here Brooke finds solace in a kindred spirit, and she astutely compares the experience of being on the same wavelength with this person to “chords of music strewn across a bar line”. Vocally, it’s one of her prettiest performances. It didn’t stand out to me immediately, but it’s grown on me quite a bit as I’ve listed more.
I’m really not sure what’s going on with this one. It’s the only remotely upbeat track in the album’s back half, which isn’t a bad thing – I like the groove it settles into and the sweet vocal melodies once it gets going. But Brooke has double-tracked her vocals in a very off-putting way at the beginning, falling into that uncanny space between speaking and singing, and it even sounds a bit off-key, and it took me a while to warm up to the song because of it. Then I realized it’s a lot like a lesser Eisley song in the sense that what few lyrics there are play second fiddle to the fact that this song is mainly here to give her the excuse to sing “Ooh ooh ooh” over and over. That seems to occupy half of an already short song, to the extent where I’m left wondering if there’s much of a point to this one.
Here’s where the theme of aging and losing one’s childlike, carefree nature gets a bit weightier. Like “Two of a Kind”, this is an acoustic guitar-based song, but unlike that song, the guitar melody seems stuck on the same chord throughout the verse and the song almost feels like it’s in a state of suspended animation because of it. Brooke’s vocals and the bittersweet chorus give it a little more variance, but overall I’m not sure the music bears the emotional weight of what the lyrics describe. The string arrangement is impeccable, and I enjoy the song purely on a musical level for the most part, but it needs a little more tragedy.
Aha, here’s the drama I’ve been looking for. It actually shows up in what might be the album’s starkest song, both musically and lyrically. The lyrics, while they seem to be romantic in nature, are fragmented, as if every syllable was written to match the slow trickle of notes from her piano. There’s something attention-grabbing about the minor-key melody and the cautious pace of this song – it’s like it wants to be head over heels in love and totally at peace about that, but there’s a nervous energy lurking behind her words. This is the spot on the album where I feel like she gets the most mileage out of a minimalist approach.
11. Cherry Pick
I’ve never been a huge fan of poetry readings as album tracks. I feel like, if you’ve written compelling, poetic lyrics, and you are a musician, then you ought to set those lyrics to music and use your singing voice to convey them. I get that it fits the theme of the album to have an elderly gentlemen read these grave words about the sun slowly setting on a person’s life, and there are some choice turns of phrase here for sure (“The watchtower growing watch-less/The cautious losing conscience”), but then I get this weird sense that the guy reciting it is reading these words for the first time as he does so, which results in a bit an abrupt change in tone when he realize he’s reached the end and they leave the mic running to pick up some studio chatter after the fact. It kills whatever gravity might have been built up by the cinematic string arrangement running underneath it, and I feel like there was a real missed opportunity to segue this one nicely out of or into the emotionally heavy songs that surround it.
12. The Splitting of Yourself in Two
Another very tragic song, where Brooke’s vocals and piano are mostly laid bare with only modest instrumental backing, concludes the album, hitting us right away with the gut punch “I will never understand you/For you crossed into the other side.” I get the feeling that she’s singing to a family member who passed away before they could work out whatever issues existed between them, and she’s a bit sad that she only saw one side of this person who apparently compartmentalized their life in order to shield her from certain truths about them. I almost don’t realize that she’s coming to a conclusion that will be of great personal importance to her, because the song moves along quietly enough that it seems to end with a “To be continued…” rather than a solid “The End”, but now I get why she decided to open the album with a song about not wanting to be fake. I like the thematic cohesion that comes from this notion of being your whole, genuine self bookending the album, but I still haven’t figured out quite what to make of a lot of the disjointed material in between.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Window Maker $1.50
Egg Shells $.75
Pennies and Youth $1.75
Two of a Kind $1.25
Cherry Pick $.50
The Splitting of Yourself in Two $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: