Braids, Shadow Offering

COVID-19 has inverted a whole load of this // that // the other over the course of these past few months, and while a considerably lesser concern in the grandiose scheme of things, the delayed release of Albertan trio Braids’ fourth album – Shadow Offering – is not insignificant. Within the context of Raphaelle Standell-Preston et al.’s latest aural proffering, in any case.

For across some of Shadow Offering, hope doesn’t so much spring eternal as it does vernal; thus, a late April release would have made that bit more sense. It can brim with a sense of dewy new beginnings – perfectly encapsulated by the refreshing, globose synths of the opening Here 4 U – because this is a break-up album. (“Out chasing little sparks, see where it goes / Oh, you wish you’d kept me / Well, I was there, now I am here / You wanted freedom, so I gave it to you / I’m not gonna sit around / I was hurt, needed air” an unequivocal introduction to this conviction.) But it shouldn’t be dismissed as readily as most, for Standell-Preston’s exploration of the genre is thoroughgoing and thought-provoking, as she translates relatable loss into hitherto untold pros: from the diaristic raunch of the giddying, ‘up’ Young Buck, to sprawling centrepiece Snow Angel, her lyrical content forcefully confronts both the physical and phrenic need to find, or re-find, the self; to refine and redefine the mind in the mazed aftermath.

Amidst a steadily intensifying blizzard of Tangerine Dream-y arpeggi, the latter hears Standell-Preston lament her lacking “someone to keep [her] warm,” before her attentions turn less self-centred and altogether more altruistic. Premonitorily, toward the beginning of a potent 190-second monologue, she’ll elucidate “amongst all the madness, the chaos / The need to march in the streets,” and condemn “fake news and indoctrination / Closed borders and deportation.” It’s a stream-of-conscious soliloquy which is worth dwelling thereon, for whether this serves to clear her conscience somewhat or whatever else, there’s plenty to unpack: her recognising having been “cloaked in white privilege since the day [she] was born,” her realising the insignificance of the individual in the bigger picture of collective environmental negligence, her resuscitating a contempt for iPhone addiction which percolated down through much of Blue Hawaii’s Tenderness (2017) and, ultimately, her rhetorical quandary:

“I wanna be a mother, but I shouldn’t bring in another.”

Repeated with true intensity and increasing compulsion, it’s so compelling a moment, that it somehow manages to avert your ears from the Krautrock bed – plush and perfectly multi-layered as a Simba mattress – on which it sits; albeit uncomfortably. A discomfiting listen then, yes, as a violent fever overwhelms much of these erratic minutes. And with only a couple left, necessary respite and deep, respiratory breaths kick in. “Can I get off of this ride? / I’m feeling dizzy / It’s moving way too fast / And I wanna come down,” Standell-Preston implores – perhaps riffing on Stop the World, I Want to Get Off – atop a musical backdrop which appears to, well, rip off Portishead’s The Rip. Regardless, it’s a remarkable piece of music; a composition which could detrimentally eclipse many a record. Conversely, it complements much of Shadow Offering

Eclipse (Ashley) is a coruscating panegyric to iridescent friendship, evocative of Danish art-rock provocateurs Blaue Blume and avant-garde visionaries Cocteau Twins to equivalent extent, with a truly captivating polyrhythmic drum track; Just Let Me, part visceral lamentation on emotional apartness in spite of physical proximity, and part measured rumination on what went awry; the propulsive Upheaval II, which begins with the candid disclosure: “I spend all my time chasing after guys who don’t love me” and reaffirms her attraction toward “cruel love,” picks up where the hapless, lustful folly and foibles of Young Buck – “It’s seeming so hard to ever be loved by you” – left off… and the immersive, comparatively minimal Ocean subsequently picks up (“Just want you to want me / Why is that so much to ask?”).

But this album – a forensic examining the dissolution of love, in and of itself – is conflicted. Or, rather, Stanell-Preston is conflicted; and she admits as much at irregular intervals: “Parts of me are waiting, and parts of me move on” (Here 4 U), “You’re right, I’m wrong / You’re wrong, I’m right” (Just Let Me), and so on. One song, Upheaval II, she’ll confidently declare: “I’m running away on the road to myself,” while the next, Fear of Men, she concedes: “I am so distracted / From the path I could be on.” “I’m confusion” she’ll later confide, during Ocean. And this at best distracts, or worse detracts, from what is Braids’ most cohesive work to date. They’ve found, refined and defined a resolute sound which is at once their own, and for this, Standell-Preston, Taylor Smith, and Austin Tufts deserve undeniable credit. So too erstwhile Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, with whom the record was produced.

Yet as Standell-Preston’s predilection for “pok[ing her] wounds” and setting these secretions to song continues unhindered, this perhaps isn’t as much of ‘a break-up album’ as it might’ve been. Which renders it both interesting and irritating, as her inability to unstick herself from the rut of those “old ways” cited during the itchy, kinetic Fear of Men is somewhat hindering the band as a whole. A real interest derives from her incomplete cognisance of these shortcomings, as the closing Note to Self opens with the lyric: “Do you want me to love myself more than I love anyone else?/ I tire of me sometimes, just like I tire of you / Only I’m stuck with this / Can’t leave this body, this voice / Just momentary distance when I close my eyes for silence.” But release delays aside, due – ironically – to respiratory-inhibiting debilitations, that bit more time and space to allow for the figurative dust to settle may not have gone amiss. For whereas the music has ample breathing room, Standell-Preston’s voice – superlative though its performance may be – is suffocated by uncertainty. In essence, it sounds as though she is still in need of air, in spite of this latest beginning exhibiting a whole host of bright sparks.