When I was a little kid, my parents (mostly my dad, who is devoutly Catholic) very diligently dragged me in to church every single Sunday. For a few years I developed an annoying little habit of leaning my head against my dad’s arm and falling asleep, usually during the homily. I imagine this garnered dirty, disapproving looks from the members of the congregations who considered themselves particularly devout followers of the loving and forgiving Jesus Christ, but my parents (mostly my mom, who was a very spiritual-lapsed Methodist) allowed it because there was a time, long, long ago, when I was fucking adorable.
I’m a pretty heavy sleeper and, even back when I was a little kid, falling asleep at the end of the day was a process rather than an event. I’ve never found it easy to fall asleep in cars or on airplanes, and I’m convinced that my inability to take short naps in the middle of the day is 30% of the reason why I flunked out of college. In times of great boredom during what we’ll laughably call my adulthood, I have found my mind wandering back to that habit of falling asleep in church. Back in those days, I felt so safe, so comfortable, so small. I hadn’t yet learned to question God or fend for myself. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would one day have to fend for myself. I was so very vulnerable and I wasn’t even afraid: it was simply my natural state. My whole life existed in a little pocket under the watchful protective gaze of my loving parents and an all-powerful god.
Then I grew up. As I grew, illusions were shattered and hearts were broken, I learned to look after myself and I grew bigger and more alone. I no longer fit inside that safe little pocket. Eventually I stopped falling asleep in church, and later still I stopped going to church at all. With those traditions went that powerful feeling of safety, of comfort, of vulnerability, of smallness. It’s a bittersweet kind of thing because I know if I spent my whole life in that pocket I would only be getting a fraction of what life has to offer. But a small part of me will always miss that feeling and try to find some way to recapture it and incorporate it into my life. Lately, particularly since I flunked out of college and failed my way out of a career, that small part of me has started chasing that feeling. I’ve looked for it at sculpture gardens and dive bars and in cigarettes and library books. I got close a few times, but I never found the real deal.
“Mountain”, the seventh track on Annalibera’s new full-length album, Nevermind I Love You is the real deal. Over four minutes, the song builds from something simple and beautiful to something grand and overwhelming that absolutely took my breath away the first time I heard it. Unlike similar slow-build type songs, instead of starting at a slow, walk-ish pace and gradually accelerating, I feel like “Mountain” just hits the ground running and gets bigger and faster and bigger and faster until that last minute where it just jumps off a fucking cliff and engulfs you. That last minute of the song is so gargantuan, so vast and striking that it almost escapes comprehension or description.
I’m a pretty big dude and don’t often feel small or intimidated. The only things that really scare me are small, delicate things, things that I could easily break without thinking about it or things that I don’t understand. This is why I am scared of holding babies and talking to girls. The last minute of “Mountain” scares me. It intimidates me. It could snap me in half without a second thought. It dwarfs me and makes me feel small and vulnerable and it makes me feel like I can fit inside that pocket. It also reminds me why I’ll never need to chase that feeling anymore. As safe and comfortable as the smallness I used to know felt, it is no match for the intoxicating vulnerability of beholding something like “Mountain” and trying not to shrink away. As much as the song intimidates me, it also inspires and illuminates me. It frees my mind to think complicated thoughts and reconcile conflicting ideals. It gives me the courage to be vulnerable knowing full well that there are no parents and no gods that will save or protect me.
I saw the album cover when it was first announced, but it didn’t really stand out to me. The cover art just seemed like a little blur: one of the many, many digital images on my computer screen fighting a losing battle for my attention. It sailed right over my head and I paid it absolutely no attention other than to see that it was reddish and kind of busy. Then I got my hands on the record. I am not and never have been one of those dudes who refuses to get on board with digital media or talks the ear off of anyone who will listen about how vinyl produces a better sound or cassettes or blah blah blah.
Nevertheless, there is absolutely something to be said for holding something in your hands. You can feel it, you can feel the weight of it in your hands and run your fingers across the face of it. It has mass and color and dimensions; you can see it and smell it and taste it and throw it and break it. It exists in the only way you can know for sure that something exists. Once I got the record and held it in my hands and ran my fingers over the cover, I was finally able to see it for what it was. The art adorning her album cover depicts a grand, grotesque mess of feathers and wings and beaks, all reds and whites and greys, against a dark background. By the time I really saw the cover, I’d heard “Black Cat White Cat” several dozen times but I hadn’t yet given the other songs the time they deserved.
For that reason, or possibly because I’m an idiot, my first impression of the cover was of chaos and darkness, of lament and regret. I thought the cover was trying to suggest that our very human and very desperate need for company or companionship in life, our addiction to personal entanglements, weighs us down; it keeps us from flying and reaching our greatest potential. This mess of emotions and attachments that we all call love can bog down a beautiful songbird and distort it into something unrecognizable and incapable of the kind of beauty it might otherwise be free to share with the world.
Then I listened to “Vermillion” again. And then I listened to “Vermillion” a couple more times. Then I went out for a walk around the chilly streets of downtown Des Moines with my headphones in my ears and listened to “Vermillion” a couple more times. And then I grabbed drinks with some friends at Malo and chatted amicably with the painfully earnest high school kids I work with and avoided text messages from important people and ranted about how annoying my boss is. And then a thought occurred to me. The chaos depicted on the cover of this album doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There is some beauty and art and wisdom that can only be found in the kind of chaos and mess that graces the cover of this album.
Annalibera is not a songbird. A songbird is a thing of grace and majesty and great natural beauty. Annalibera is all of those things and more, because she is human. To be human is to be equally capable of beautiful and terrible things, to have foibles and flaws in equal volume to your virtues and values. A songbird is capable of creating something of beauty because that is in it’s very nature, that is all that it knows to do. To be human is to have the capacity to transcend that nature, to create something that is above, below, and beyond that nature. To want something so much more than we really need anything. To desire companionship and entanglements despite, and precisely because, the complications that might arise. To allow your heart to be broken and mistakes to be made. To be human is to be a small part of a big, beautiful, breathtaking mess.
Listening to “Vermillion” and examining the cover art forced me to admit that the safety and vulnerability that I felt as a young child was never really real. I never made a conscious choice to walk up those church steps or let my parents buy all my sandwiches and t-shirts. My vulnerability was a natural state, it was completely out of my hands. In the grand scheme of things it was essentially meaningless, especially compared to the vulnerability that we are capable of feeling when we are all grown up and let ourselves take risks and own our mistakes and fall in love.
About a week after I first got my hands on a promo copy of this album, I went to see Annalibera’s Anna Gebhardt perform some solo songs at the Women Writers In The Round event at Ritual Cafe and it was here that I first really heard the tracks “Blooms” and “Moving Song” and it wasn’t until I really heard these songs that I was able to wrap my mind grapes all the way around the album and see what it was trying to say.
These two songs speak to a sense of wanderlust, a desire for adventure, and, above all, a fear of commitment. Not in the boring 90’s, Chandler Bing-ish sense of a fear of commitment, but a fear the uncertainty involved in making a permanent choice, whether that choice is to run or to stay put. This theme of impermanence and uncertainty plagued me for a long time because I had a hard time reconciling it with the rest of the album, but then an offhand comment by My Buddy Bruce© tied it all together for me. He said that the album had the greatest combination of opening and closing tracks on any album he’s ever heard.
He’s right of course. The key to this whole album — the song that unifies the whole undertaking — is the awe-inspiring closing track, “Honesty.” While “Mountain” and “Black Cat White Cat” and “Vermillion” are all as deeply personal as they are grand and daunting, “Honesty” is so intimate and raw that it feels wrong, almost voyeuristic, to listen to it. Many a singer has claimed to bare their soul on the tracks they write, and some of them aren’t lying, but no one I’ve ever heard has done it with as much bravery and abandon as Annalibera does on “Honesty.”
When I first heard it, I only caught the last half of the lyrics about running away from love and floating ghosts and I assumed it was addressed at some former lover. To me it seemed like a collection of things she wished she had had the bravery to say to some paramour at an opportune moment. God knows we have all waved at moments like those as they passed us by. But eventually I gave it the time it deserved and heard the whole song and it suddenly dawned on me. She wasn’t being honest with some character from a previous love affair, she was being honest with herself.
In her interview with Brian Campos on The Pants OFF! Podcast, Brian asks her where her motivation to write and perform comes from and she says “I guess I wrote the songs for myself, all the ones that end up being performed are things that I learned and wanted to remember, cause you know you’ll go through life and you’ll have moments of clarity and then they’ll be gone.” “Honesty” perfectly encapsulates that kind of philosophy, it feels like an affirmation and a preservation of the feelings she had after a certain, vital experience.
I wasted so many years of my youth telling myself all sorts of lies. I went to a very small parochial school and I was smart enough that I never bothered to learn how to work hard or put forth effort and I convinced myself this was a sustainable trajectory to carry me through life. I put every ounce of creative passion I ever had on the back burner so that I could chase the kind of grandeur that only exists inside an episode of television penned by Aaron Sorkin. I told myself that I loved all the wrong girls when I knew I didn’t and I told myself I didn’t love the only girl that mattered even when I knew I did.
“Honesty” is a reminder to never, ever engage in that kind of stupid bullshit ever again. It’s a reminder that no sense of grandeur, illusory or not, can match the beauty and simplicity of two people sharing some kind of connection. A reminder that when you stop being honest with yourself it can be a difficult road back and sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where you don’t even know what the truth is anymore.
“Honesty” an encouragement to run towards real love rather than away from it, it’s a permission slip to let yourself go and try to work out what you really think and feel. It’s a declaration of independence and an acknowledgement of the silliness of trying to live your life without depending on other people. More than anything, I think it represents a choice. In life we all have to make a lot of choices, but one of the most crucial ones revolves around how we choose to interact with the truth. We can, as I did for many years, treat it as an adversary, something that can be defeated, outfoxed, or reasoned with. Or, we can treat it as an ally, a compass, a north star, something that is harsh but dependable, comforting and uncompromising.
This sense of honesty espoused by the closing track — this attitude towards the truth — gives the album a kind of narrative arc that ties all the way back to the opening track. “Honesty” speaks to the wanderlust of “Moving Song” and “Blooms” or homesick blues of “Vermillion” and “Black Cat White Cat” and, without passing judgment, simply tries to find an honest emotional place to ground those feelings and give them purpose and direction and dignity.
I have found that when you are truly honest with yourself about what you want and what you believe it becomes so much easier to take risks and jump off cliffs. You find a willingness to make mistakes and give someone else the right to break your heart. While it will always be tempting to strive after some peaceful, simple songbird of a life that is free of strife and conflict, I find the concept increasingly boring and uninteresting. More and more, I find myself saying yes to chaos and messiness and I am more than happy to attribute a newfound enthusiasm for this practice entirely to Annalibera and their magnificent achievement, Nevermind I Love You, due out March 24 from Sump Pump Records in vinyl and digital formats.
In the meantime, you can stream the full album via Exclaim.
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