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Giving Up the Ghost

Penner's When We Fall Apart



Regular readers will remember I enjoy reviewing records in an appropriately intimate, yet dynamic environment — specifically, while driving to somewhere pretty in my truck. This week however, circumstances came together like irksome old gods to prevent that experience. First off, I only have a CD player in my truck and a Bluetooth speaker in the cab doesn't sound as good. But the EP of Penner's When We Fall Apart is available only in a digital format on all your favorite platforms. More importantly, my father is ailing in a way that usually only improves with the introduction of Eternity, and the hot water heater in my stepmother's house gave up the ghost and helpfully flooded the basement in a final deranged act of broken utility. So, the environment in which I listened to these tunes (with a pretty good set of headphones) was certainly dynamic but in a wet and subterranean way. Nothing wrong with conserving gas right now anyway.

Long ago in my New Orleans days, a friend of mine who has played more shows and sold more records than anyone I know gave me some great advice about rating music. He told me to judge the work solely on its own merits, rather than my own aesthetic preferences. Did the artist achieve their vision in a way that is tangible or are they muddled up in the mediocre doldrums of the land of Less Than? Did they find what they were looking for? This model of reviewing has helped me (a man full of strong opinions in the habit of sharing them publicly) find a much more open field from which to appreciate music without the goblins of my own prejudice cluttering up the landscape with their foul rudeness. With that headspace on my vision board, I disregarded the press release and comparisons to Billie Eilish (I am a 40-year-old man and not Billie's target audience, as it should be) and simply enjoyed Penner's work on its own.

The music is cinematic and the songwriting is very good. Let's start with the first claim: As the opening track "I Think I'm Haunted" spilled out its thick production of bell tones and breathy vocals, the very act of sweeping and pumping out a muddy basement became a sort of expressionist film. My world was full of cobwebs, sawdust and swirling, dark water, with this magical soundtrack propelling the action. The production is dense — lots of background vocals, strings and various pleasant sonic window dressings. I rarely listen to music with this much gloss but wasn't offended, and it provided a lovely counterpoint to my murky work. Regarding my second claim, yes, the songwriting is very good and better than the production. Styles come and go. Penner has a great many stylistic flourishes in her sound that work well for the here and now. However, were she to do a completely stripped-down acoustic version of these songs, perhaps with a piano, guitar and upright bass, the songs would still be delightful and full of hooks and catches. Take, for instance, the second track "Close to Overdose." To my ear, the lyrics are full of allusions to sex and drugs that combine to form a feeling of need, of overwhelming desire. And again, the production is very electronic, which is perfectly fine and, again, a welcome cinematic haunting to my mundane, muddy boots task. However, the strength of the lyrics and melodies stand out enough to let this song breathe no matter how the artist might choose to give life to it. A live version might be played in dozens of ways with all sorts of instruments and it would still be a good song. That's an important distinction and the mark of a gifted songwriter, which Penner is.

The last song, "Wish I Could Float Away" (an appropriate title for my circumstances), might actually be my favorite. I don't want to get too far out in my descriptions because I have been feeling somewhat muted emotionally lately, but it worked for me. She managed to do a lot more with a lot less than her previous songs, and there's enough space with the slow tempo to really appreciate the aeronautic lushness of the chorus and its radiant vocals. The best thing about a record like this is that it left me wanting more. I want new music from Penner, new iterations and growth in sound. Even though a lot of the sounds aren't in my wheelhouse, I'm intrigued. That's the magic of great songwriting.

In one of my all-time favorite songs, Billy Bragg sings, "When the world falls apart, some things stay in place." That's in my head a lot these days. When someone in your family is ailing, probably for the last time, you want to hold on to solid things. Something as obnoxious as a blown-out hot water heater on a weekend becomes a weird sort of pleasure — a reminder of how little it takes to fuck up our stasis and how good we are at getting by anyway. And as the world outside of my own life seems to be quite literally falling apart, it is a pleasure to have an ugly, annoying thing like a flooded basement married to a beautiful thing like new music from a talented local artist to listen to and consider. Hearing another person articulate their experience with pandemic isolation and fear through the beautiful lens of their own sonic vision is such a treat right now, even as the waters recede and a new calamity probably slouches just below the horizon. Thanks, Penner. Keep it up, please.

Collin Yeo (he/him) doesn't really feel like rocking the boat much these days and besides, we have the best of all possible people running the world anyway. He lives in Arcata, which is an excellent town without any problems whatsoever.

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