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Strand Of Oaks
HEAL Robin Smith , July 11th, 2014 07:45

On his third record, the shimmering, righteously all-caps HEAL, Timothy Showalter is on his own, listening to all his favourite musicians: Jason Molina, Sharon Van Etten and the Smashing Pumpkins. Their songs are anthemic: they're the only thing he's got, or else they're the best advice he can get his hands on. It doesn't matter, as long as they're there. They can come through his headphones or float through the air of his room. They're there to be sung "in the mirror" as he cleans the fuck out of his teeth. One of these artists in particular stays like clean air sifting through fog: Jason Molina, captured in the dark, sludgy tome that is 'JM', never leaves Showalter. HEAL, with its big hooks and small apologies, feels like it wants to do the same for someone else one day: it wants to be the record you play when you're home alone for good.

'JM' is a touching tribute, but it's also an incredible work of personal art; the depth Showalter goes into on his transition from young, fractured music fan into a high, bitter adult is staggering. This is more than just a dude listening to Molina's songs, more than just "sweet tunes to play" – it's the bedroom he hears them in, the parents he ignores them to, the landscape that shapes them. As much as the song is dedicated to Molina, it also feels dedicated to Showalter's hometown in Indiana, and to all the citizens filling it in. You can't have the lonely bedroom without the people who make it lonely.

For a singer-songwriter getting over himself, Showalter's songwriting is touchingly empathetic: the lyrics he writes about himself are shared with those around him. That probably explains why this record is so touching; in spite of its personal focus, it ain't a record of Benji level folk solipsism. Its title track says, "You gotta heal", after attributing the best advice Showalter's ever gotten to a Sharon Van Etten song. Later, he thanks Christian, apologies to Katie, and admits he's got to change for a whole roster of others:  "I drank too much and I took too much / I lied to all my friends about who I was but Katie listen to me / now I'm all grown up." It's a song with an aerobics-ready drumbeat, Showalter at the front like a life coach opening up about the past that led him here. It feels dramatic: HEAL is hyped up like a fight for Showalter's soul, shared with all who helped win it.

Showalter's reference to Van Etten in 'HEAL' is telling: if this record reminds me of anything, it's the caustic indie classic Tramp, filled with songs about Van Etten becoming homeless, hitting bottom and bleeding out a bad relationship. Like HEAL, it exists as a rags-to-riches indie rock story, in that it's made to beat down all the shit it's written about. And while Schowalter and Van Etten can both be reflective songwriters, softening their anger with acoustic rock and a slow jam aesthetic, both are also into chasing it out of the door with a broom: HEAL and Tramp are both records that rise up with anthems, ones that their listeners can take to heart – with its gorgeous, meandering riffs, 'Shut In' feels like a glittery version of Van Etten's 'All I Can', lit up by the light outside Showalter's house. Both songs are formally upbeat, resisting their tragedy while admitting it hasn't really gone away.

Showalter's songwriting is strikingly vivid, right down to describing body language and poise: be it turning a cigarette in his hand to a Songs: Ohia song or frantically peeking under his bed in search of another pack. HEAL might be an abstract record, in a lot of ways – it can come across like an inspiring seminar for the sad, about taking self-loathing and turning it into self-love – but its messages are always put in reference to Showalter's movement and figure: shuffling through old tapes in the basement, kissing his loves, getting fat. 'Plymouth', a soft piano rock track drenched in abrasive, screeching ambience, offers a perfect picture of love, mocking it in actions, but not feeling – "We took black and white pictures / with your hooded sweatshirt on... / we were beautiful, broken and young". Part of Showalter's power as a lyricist is in his ability to take the shame and embarrassment felt in his own past and appreciate it. As much as he beats himself up on HEAL, his songs don't serve to pull himself apart from that older, more destructive self. On a song about never leaving the house, his chorus goes: 'Know my name / know I mean it'. It doesn't look like much on paper, but that line is a piece of skin-of-the-teeth survival.

HEAL sounds as gorgeous as a vulnerable folk rock record, but as defiant and powerful as arena rock. The synths sparkle, or remain sustained until breaking point; the guitars squeal and scream; the choruses refuse to stand down. It's hardly surprising, when you look at who Showalter's working with: the record was mixed by John Congleton, who has stormed through this year working with ferociously intentioned artists like St. Vincent, Swans and Andrew Jackson Jihad. 'Mirage Year' is a song that captures this side of the spectrum, featuring a creaky, defeated vocal performance from Showalter and a weakly serene bridge, but also a deafening crash of guitars and dissonant soloing. It feels of a piece: HEAL is not your quiet night-time listening, nor your perfect slice of rock & roll ire. It's murkier than that, both in melody and emotional resonance. It's better for it, too: it feels as whole as the time in his life Schowalter is documenting, full of dramatic, self-aggrandizing synth pop and furious electric guitars.

My favourite lyric on HEAL comes on 'JM', and it's a balancing act. In it, Schowalter achieves his strangest – but most affectionate – lyric: "I was mean to my dad / because I was mean to myself". As much as HEAL is about its songwriter, it's also about those who make up his next of kin, the push and pull between blaming them and being blamed. On the title track, he expresses something similar to his girlfriend: "You were cheating on me, but I was cheating on myself". HEAL might be one of those "intimate" singer-songwriter records that listeners like to think of as memoir-like, but it feels, at the same time, like a very external piece of music. That's the deal with Schowalter hiding in the basement and getting fucked up every day: you can't hurt yourself without hurting others. It's that message that makes his songwriting so special and inspiring.

Later in 'JM', Schowalter speaks directly to Molina, an honorary next of kin: "Either get out or stay in / I won't let these dark times win / we got your sweet tunes to play". Here's to the next lost soul in the long tapestry of them, getting too fucked up to think straight: they might have Strand Of Oaks to help them make it through.