“You don’t let someone you love feel afraid,” Jilian Medford sings on the opening track of IAN SWEET’s debut full-length, Shapeshifter. Falling in love is terrifying in and of itself; realizing you’ve lost too much of your individuality in the process is even worse. Shapeshifter is built around a singular flaw — the compulsion to make others feel at ease, often to the detriment of your own well-being — and examines it from all angles, pushing and prodding at that trait through expansive rock songs that grow and contract to meet Medford’s many different moods.
“I always give up parts of myself to other people,” Medford explains. “When you love someone, you want them to be comfortable. While I was writing the album, I was in a really unhealthy relationship, and I suppressed it so much that I became someone else. I was taking on these different personalities because I couldn’t focus on what was going on in my life. I wasn’t feeling secure or ready to sit down and process things in a healthy way, so I molded myself into all of these things that were not me.”
IAN SWEET got its start as a solo project, and that deeply analytical singer-songwriter intimacy still drives many of their songs. Medford began the project as simply IAN — a childhood nickname given to her because she was a tomboy — while studying at the Berklee College Of Music in Boston, recording demos straight from her guitar into her laptop, hunched over the computer because the cord connecting the two wasn’t long enough. That constraint is reflected in the construction of her early material — tight, nervous, uncomfortable in its own skin.
The rest of the band came together serendipitously. Drummer Tim Cheney was brought into the fold after a last-minute dropout sent Medford scrambling to find someone to play with her on a two-week tour; Damien Scalise approached the band after a show and expressed interest in playing with them, and when they found themselves needing a bassist, he was first in line. They toured vigorously after solidifying as a trio, playing over 100 shows in their first year together. Their first output featuring all three members was their 2014 self-titled EP — most of the tracks were rearranged and reimagined solo songs save for one (“Great Big Dog”), whose wild swells hint at the pivots they’d make on Shapeshifter.
Recording with a full band — especially one that has such an instinctual chemistry — opened up the band’s songs and allowed Medford’s writing to breathe. Cheney and Scalise’s approaches to music sometimes feel diametrically opposed — Scalise is classically trained like Medford; Cheney sounds more naturalistic, having grown up around music through his father, who builds drums for a living — but they ricochet off each other in tightly-controlled microbursts. Along with Medford, they create noisy, clamoring soundscapes that are intricately designed and occasionally imposing, but always know when to step back and let the narrative take hold.
That dynamic is essential because Medford is a gripping and vivid lyricist. Lead single “Slime Time Live” uses the Nickelodeon game show as a metaphor for how depression can unexpectedly knock you on your ass; “2soft2chew” turns a stereotypical nightmare scenario into a meditation on anxiety and the inability to connect at the right times: “I get so nervous that I grit my teeth/ They get so loose and fall out/ Now I don’t have any/ When you finally want me, my mouth is too bloody.” On “Cactus Couch,” she sees the danger that’s right in front of her and opts for the pain anyway: “I keep having dreams about a cactus couch/ I sit right down.”
All of Medford’s words tie back to Shapeshifter’s central conceit. In fact, the album’s centerpiece and title track is a haunting whirlwind that Medford recorded alone after the rest of the album was already done. While mastering it in California, she realized there was a missing piece, and returned to the project’s solitary beginnings to record “Shapeshifter” in a single take. It’s arranged around a pointed thesis statement — “I have a way of loving too many things to take on just one shape” — that both ties the album together and serves as an unsettling mantra to her Achilles’ heel.
Shapeshifter is a deeply lonely album, crafted around the self-isolating tendency of appeasing someone who doesn’t even realize that they’re being catered to. “You never pay attention to the smaller things/ Like the marks on my body,” Medford sings. “The freckles on my skin don’t exist if no one’s looking.” Medford repeatedly writes off the imbalanced relationship that resulted in Shapeshifter as empty calories, all while still bearing the scars: “I’m always hungry but I never eat anything but candy,” she sings on one track. Another builds to a wailing conclusion: “You said there’s hardly any good food, but I still get real full/ I get too heavy, too full.”
That last one’s called “#23″ (which we’re premiering above), and it’s named after Medford’s favorite basketball player, Michael Jordan. It alludes to Space Jam and that film’s iconic opening song; Medford fantasizes about what it would be like to be in her idol’s shoes — “I feel like Jordan in my Jordan’s” — but twists that into a barbed-wire self-examination: “I stand in place and ignore him/ I’ll stand right here for another year.” The song’s about trying to quell the constant buzzing in your head with coping mechanisms — in this case, a “History Channel VHS about the mummies” that “keeps [her] company” — but it manages to sound fun, inviting, and comforting despite the depressing subject matter. That’s another essential component to the IAN SWEET puzzle: their ability to keep a sense of levity and humor in the face of overwhelming personal distress. They take carefully-orchestrated madness and turn it into music that acts as an abatement to self-destruction. Medford morphs her own anxieties — being someone else’s rock without that same reciprocated support — into something powerful and self-reliant.