Now, here’s an interesting one. Described as an illustrated album Pain & Power is released as both a full-length album and an accompanying physical book containing colour-pencil illustrations and lyrics of each song. Accompanied by co-producer Josh Preston who played all the instruments, it documents the Nashville-based singer songwriter’s journey through personal trauma healing following the 12 step programme in Hero’s Journey as documented by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell and based around the tradition where the vulnerable hero goes on a terrifying adventure, is victorious against all odds, and comes home transformed.
Comprising fourteen tracks divided into three chapters (Departure, Initiation, Return), drawing on oceanic imagery and mythological symbolism, touching on suggestions of addiction, depression, self-loathing and the crushing sense of a loss of youth, it encourages resiliency and hope in the face of devastation, intertwining the personal and the political with a portrait of a post-Trump America, wracked by trauma and needing to heal itself.
It opens in gorgeously dreamy, summery form with the strings and electric piano backed ‘Starring In A Play’, English’s airy voice floating like clouds over meadows on a song about questioning who you really are as opposed to the part you play and whether you do so convincingly. Things get funkier with ‘Houseplant’ which rides a scuffed, shuffling beat that’s part Velvet Underground, part electronica Suzanne Vega with stabbing keys and neurotic percussion, the voice edgier as she sings about buying the saddest looking plant in the store to fuel the need to care for something, the lyric going on to reference the death throes of American democracy on a song that’s essentially about how you give someone everything and they still don’t give a shit about you. Political metaphors welcome.
Aptly then, it’s followed by the slow rippling ‘America’ (“free as a child in a cage can be”) with its repeated reverberating guitar notes, background rumble and her double tracked vocals on a lyric that speaks of apple pie, senior prom, God and how you can buy your grocery and guns at the same store, a song less veined with cynicism and more a sense of lost innocence.
There’s a rootsy soulfulness and blues feel on the slow walking beat ‘One Of The People’ that draws on such inspirations as The Band (you might hear echoes of ‘I Shall Be Released’) and Linda Ronstadt circa ‘Love Has No Pride’ on a number seeking self-healing and self-belief.
That simmering self-doubt comes to the boil with the tumbling chords and infectious bubbling retro pop of ‘Fourteen’ (“I am so afraid/That I just don’t have what it takes/To be somebody with something to give”), where she imagines herself a teenager again with all the same overwhelming feelings. Putting me in mind of both a Bangles ballad and Zoey Deschanel from She and Him, it’s one of the album’s biggest earworms.
The track ends with her singing “some days it takes so much work just to live” and that sense of hopelessness spills over into the softly sung folksy pop ‘Messed Up You’ with its circling acoustic guitar chimes, However, as the final track of the chapter, it’s also a springboard for the healing to begin, an older friend there to allow her the space to become completely undone and then “he asked me gently if I’ve had time to play, time to sing, time to notice the rain”.
Her vocals double-tracked, Initiation begins with the swirl of effervescent keyboards introducing and underpinning ‘3 Choices In Hell’, another terrific 60s jangle folk-pop influenced number that sports the line “I have been graffiti/Waiting for myself to dry” and essentially says that when you find yourself in hell you can either rationalise it, numb it or find a way through the torment (“Let the smoke surround your brain/Til you can’t ignore the pain any more/And it melts”).
With its opening stabbing notes and another rush of the sort of radio-friendly country-inflected pop that shot Belinda Carlisle to stardom, ‘Who’ returns the focus to divided and torn Trump-legacy America where talk of inclusiveness is just a wall behind which hides white protectionism. It’s back then to that earlier dreamy orchestral sound for ‘Where Are You Now?’, another song about feeling adrift and lost, of getting older and “Leaning in to what can’t hold you/The way you thought it could before”, overwhelmed by grief and disconnect. The second chapter ends, then, with the midtempo sway of ‘Whatever It Takes’, the track from which the album title comes (albeit with added expletives) and, as it suggests, is , as Lennon put it, about whatever gets you through the night, to embrace the pain and let it empower you because “you are not imprisoned by the body you live in”.
The final leg on the path to rebirth starts with the strings-brushed country-gospel hues of ‘Maybe Me’ (“maybe I can plant my tired feet and learn to sway, through the winter’s breeze”), and continues with the shimmering pop ‘Springtime In The Suburbs’ where, while she may still feel cold and old, draws on the imagery of nature coming alive again along with her own wish to fall like rain and rise up from the earth.
It ends then with, first, ‘Statue Of Jesus’, its cheery bouncealong melody counterpointed by a lyric that again turns the eye on an America fearful and paranoid about the homeless and the immigrants scaring the kids or getting them hooked on heroin, the title referenced in the line about it being “worn down from a long hard day of fighting injustice/And human judgement”. And finally, there’s the percussive clicks and Imagine-like piano accompanied calm and reflective serenity and triumph of ‘Power You Possess’ with its emergence into a validation of self-worth and the transcendental closing lines “all you have surrendered now is blooming into sunflowers with halos of fire/Exploding in the valley of each footstep left behind”.
Intended to be listened to while exploring the illustrations, the music, the words and her intoxicating voice coming together in a profusion of songs and irresistible, hook-laden melodies that lodge themselves in your consciousness, this is unquestionably one of my albums of the year. It should be one of yours too.
Artist’s website: www.georgiaenglishmusic.com
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