Funny things happen when you’re forced to spend vast chunks of your childhood in church. People react to it in different ways. I couldn’t stand it. The polished grain of the pews, the endless ritual of sitting and standing at different parts of mass, the holding hands during the Our Father, the way my parents would flick me in the head whenever I got too restless — it all adds up to a visceral memory-haze thing. It was this black hole at the center of the weekend — this fugue state I’d go into for an hour or so every Sunday morning, mentally picking apart movie plots or Danzig riffs while my body did the robotic worship-performance stuff that the ritual demanded. I still go into a state of anxiety whenever I get near a church. The way people interact there — even if it’s an entirely genuine expression of real community — feels, on some level, like a forced ordeal. And yet all that time in those houses of worship trained my brain, on some reptile level, to contemplate the infinite, to fixate on morality and devotion and transcendence. It’s in me. It’ll always be in me.
At some point, we’re going to have to figure out the impact that worship, and worship music, have had on the last couple of generations of indie rock songwriters. Some, like Sufjan Stevens or Julien Baker, still happily identify as Christian, and you can hear the skyward stare of their faith coming through in their music in vastly different ways. Others, like Father John Misty, grew up in overwhelmingly and repressively Christian households, and you can hear their music, on some level, as attempts to escape from that all-dominating imposed fidelity. And that’s the case with Sarah Beth Tomberlin, the young Louisville-based singer and songwriter whose debut album At Weddings is one of the starkest, most striking debuts I’ve heard this year.
Tomberlin is the daughter of a Baptist-minister father, and she grew up traveling from town to town, congregation to congregation. She was home-schooled. She wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music; she had to hide her illicit copy of Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. (Talking to Stereogum earlier this summer, she said, “If we went to the movie theater, we would then talk about what the message of the movie was, even fucking Finding Nemo.” My family’s Catholicism, intense as it was, could never compete.) When she started writing songs in earnest, she was living at home, working at a Verizon store after dropping out of a Christian school. These days, she lives in Louisville and works at a coffeehouse.
I didn’t know any of the details of Tomberlin’s backstory when I started listening to At Weddings, but all of it rings true with how I already felt about the album. At Weddings is a deep and cutting album, an album full of lacerating self-doubt and stifled longing. It’s mostly about relationships — about trying and failing to accept the idea that someone else could form a deep connection with you — but religion comes into it, too. “It felt so strange when I said it out loud,” she sings, “That I look for redemption in everyone else / But funny thing is that I always hated church / Spend so much time looking that I forgot to search.”
But Tomberlin’s music is quiet and contemplative in ways that I tend to associate with church, with guitar chords echoing around the wooden eaves. Her voice is hushed but expressive, a conversational alto that’s always reaching for its upper register. It’s a spare, elegant, uncluttered album. Tomberlin plays acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer on it, and those two instruments are pretty much all we hear. (Owen Pallett, who produced the album, sings backup and plays a couple of instruments on one song. He’s the only other musician who appears.) It’s the type of music you might imagine coming from someone who wants to escape the influence of her church-bound youth but who mostly grew up hearing hymns. All of these songs work as hymns, even — especially — the ones that get into deep, ugly personal stuff.
And there is a lot of deep, ugly personal stuff on this album. Tomberlin’s lyrics are urgent, tangled attempts to communicate from someone who is still figuring out how to do that. “I’m tired of feeling like you only stay out of guilt and shame / But did we know any other way / I didn’t know any other way,” she sings on the album’s very first song. She keeps imagining herself as ephemeral things — as a ghost or as a cloud: “I just don’t trust people who like me / After you leave my house, I’m already in doubt / I am convinced that I am some kind of cloud of disease.” She wonders, half-detached, about the urge to “only love the people who don’t love you back.” And she tries, hard, to bridge the distance that looms as the album’s villain: “I’m looking for newness in the way you say my name / And I guess that I’m asking you to try and do the same.”
These are hard, intense sentiments, and yet Tomberlin has surrounded them with striking, overwhelming beauty. There’s reverb all over her voice and her guitar, and so the album rings and chimes in lovely ways. On a pure surface level, it’s an overwhelmingly soothing album. It fills up a room, giving off a sense of softness and warmth. Musically, the thing it reminds me of most is Grouper — that is, if you could understand Liz Harris’ words, if she let her songs become concrete enough to be vulnerable. The music on At Weddings would sound perfectly at home in a church. So maybe that’ll always be in her, too.
At Weddings is out 8/10 on Saddle Creek.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Foxing’s explosive, experimental post-emo opus Nearer My God.
• Tirzah’s woozy, skittering debut Devotion.
• Hilang Child’s dramatic, harmony-heavy Years.
• Greys side project Golden Drag’s bright, melodic Pink Sky.
• Notches’ scraggly punker Almost Ruined Everything.
• Former Scissor Sisters leader Jake Shears’ self-titled solo debut.
• Moses Sumney’s Black In Deep Red, 2014 EP.