Tim Showalter is probably not the Samuel R. Delany of indie rock. The latter has, with consistent genius, crossed the imagined literary border demarcating the imagined differences between the world of the science fictional, the fantastic and the speculative, and the world of the confessional, cathartic, and memoiristic. Delany builds sci-fi novels and fantasy series around literary theory and neo-Marxist thought; he expands questions of queerness and gender into populated moons and far-future worlds. Then, as if there were no difference (because, really, is there?), he recounts his time as a black, gay man in the literary and science fiction communities of the 20th century with just as much intelligence, mastery and, well, “entertainment value” as in his proper sci-fi novels.
Pope Killdragon, the first Strand of Oaks album I heard, is, if it’s anything, a loosely linked collection of fantasies and science fictions presented as songs. Very little was revealed of Showalter himself, other than his ability to craft compelling songs about giants, Christian youth groups after nuclear war, and dreams of meeting JFK. Now, I should be careful comparing a white guy playing indie rock to Samuel R. Delany, but the comparison helps to create an image in my head of the move from the fantastic to the personal, and the many ways in which these things are always already the same thing, with the same preoccupations, having issued from the same source.
HEAL, Showalter’s latest record and Dead Oceans debut, is a monstrous heap of synths, drums, and distortion. No acoustic guitars gently plucked. But, of course, history is full of dudes putting down the guitar and picking up the, uh, louder guitar, and maybe a synthesizer. Lyrically, however, this is where Strand of Oaks steps out from the mist of records like Pope Killdragon and all of their allegiances to fictional, metaphorical songwriting. Leading up to the release of the new album, it seemed obvious that the band was going through a serious rebranding. The singles (“Heal” and “Shut In”) advertised the record’s new approach, all pointing toward something more like a heavy, quasi-electronic version of Dead Oceans label-mates Phosphorescent than anything I had heard from Strand of Oaks before.
The huge, ecstatic drums and fuzzed-up guitar (on opening track “Goshen ‘97,” contributed by none other than fuzz pioneer J. Mascis) pretty much make one forget that Strand of Oaks weren’t always like this. The quiet moments (the first minute or so of Jason Molina memorial song “JM,” before it bursts into a “Down By The River”-style sad-anthem; the wistful, teary “Plymouth;” or the album-closing exercise in slow catharsis “Wait For Love”) are seldom and tend more toward rock balladry than whispered indie folk, but the ruminations are, on the whole, better and more affecting than ever. Synthesizers are everywhere, often confusing themselves with guitars in an exciting mess of energy. He does almost everything at a louder volume and writes his lyrics with a newly pointed sadness.
It is all awkwardly, intensely personal: “So I just get loaded, never leave my house” (“Shut In”); the revenge fantasies and cuckolded anger of “Mirage Year;” “I met you when your hair was short/ And my ego had barely formed/ It took a jug of wine just to ask you home” (“Plymouth”). No Alex Kona, no Kennedys, no WWIII — just Tim Showalter, singing with the same power as when he sang not directly about himself, but about characters and dreams. He has made it across the fake valley separating the fictional from the personal. It all eventually runs together, anyway. The novelist eventually writes himself into a story. Showalter is singing, sometimes screaming, about himself, his failures and injuries, in the tradition of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band or, more recently, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji.
Sometimes the songs sound like Springsteen or, as I mentioned earlier, shades of Phosphorescent’s last few albums or the guitars like front row at a Neil Young and Crazy Horse show. If I’m being honest with myself, though, none of this matters. This is, after all, a rock album, so don’t expect anything too innovative, but do expect moments of beauty and lots of writerly oversharing. It’s like listening to a 2014 update of Springsteen’s Darkness on The Edge of Town or something. Life feels important here, like a narrative, like a huge song.