Certain days, my favorite Mountain Goats song is “Woke Up New,” the one where John Darnielle imagines himself as someone who is, for reasons unexplained, newly alone. He sings about his feelings but he also sings about the minute little details of his physical experience: “The first time I made coffee for just myself, I made too much of it / But I drank it all just cuz you hate it when I let things go to waste.” It’s those granular little moments that make the song sing. Because we hear those sharp little images of another person’s actual human life, it triggers all our empathy receptors. We can imagine ourselves newly alone in just the same way, feeling that same terrifying desolation. That feeling is where Owen Ashworth lives.
Ashworth has been steadily cranking out music since the late ’90s — first as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, and then, more recently, as Advance Base. That whole time, he’s been honing both a sound and a feeling, writing these carefully dour short stories and then singing them, in a heavy Eeyore mutter, over dinky, skeletal old-timey keyboards. He’s a definitional cult artist, a guy who does a very specific thing for a very specific portion of the population. I’ve only ever paid him glancing attention — maybe because I thought that old Casiotone moniker was too twee, or maybe because I couldn’t get with the rickety amateurishness of those early records. If someone’s been making culty records for a long time, it can be hard to find the place to jump on board. But as someone who’s been sleeping on this man’s music for decades, I can tell you that Animal Companionship is a pretty amazing place to join the deeply sad party.
The sound is a big part of it. Ashworth has always made minimal, synthy records, often producing them and releasing them himself. But even though Ashworth runs his own Orindal label, he recorded Animal Companionship for the bigger Run For Cover Records, and so he had the budget to record the album in an actual studio. He recorded in Los Angeles with Papercuts frontman Jason Quever, an old friend and collaborator, producing. And even though Ashworth is working with much of the same instrumentation he’s always used, those old keyboards have been captured in cinematic clarity, with just the right levels of reverb and sustain to render them full and dreamy and three-dimensional. The sound of the album is soft and thick and comforting. And when we’re working with songs as sad as the ones that Ashworth writes, that level of comfort really comes in handy.
Ashworth writes sad stories. He used to write sad love songs, or sad songs about love. He’s still doing that, really, except that he’s now middle-aged, with a wife and kids, living in suburban Chicago, and the songs reflect that. The songs on Animal Companionship are full of a whole life’s worth of regrets and missed opportunities and moments of acceptance and dead friends. At least one song is about a protagonist’s objectively indefensible decision and his attempt to find happiness even in the wake of that decision.
On “Dolores & Kimberly,” a man leaves his wife and kids for a new love in another city, where he doesn’t know anyone. It seems like he met his new significant other online. All he has is a backpack and whatever money he got for selling his wedding ring. He gets a job at a bar and tries to start a new life. Maybe he even finds happiness: “Jesse gave me the divorce when I was 34 / I just can’t see the kids anymore / That night after closing, we opened up some good champagne / And we slow danced across the floor.”
Animal Companionship is full of moments like that, moments of isolated togetherness or even-more-isolated solitude. There’s a scene that reminds me viscerally of “Woke Up New”: “Don’t do the crosswords Sunday / I can feel dumb other ways / I could never finish them alone.” In another, a narrator pines viscerally for an ex (maybe the husband in “Dolores & Kimberly”) who has moved away without looking back: “The last that I heard, you’d settled down in South Bend / And married a girl whose folks own the bar that you tend.” In another, a woman who’s just getting used to the idea that she’s pregnant wonders furtively about what her future might hold: “You check rental listings on your lunch at work / You could have a real house if you just left New York.”
If Animal Companionship has a hook, it’s the idea of dog ownership. Not every song is about dogs, so it’s not a concept album or anything. But Ashworth does fixate on the idea. He’s a cat person, but he says he’s interested in the kind of intense codependent relationships that dog people have with their animals — the kind of comfort that they get. One character names her dog after her long-dead teenage boyfriend. Another encounters an ex’s dog on a walk through town, and the dog gets excited again, just the way he used to. (That same narrator sometimes goes to a dog park, alone, “just to sit down in the shade and watch those puppies running around.”) One character keeps an old-school answering machine just so that she can call her dog at work and tell him that he’s a good boy.
There are other through-lines. Most of the songs take place in Indiana. Characters repeat. There’s a pervasive mood — the sort of warm, glowing, amber depression that can become its own sort of reassuring presence. (Ashworth somehow covers a Magnetic Fields song from 1995, strips it down even more, and makes it even more of a deadpan emotional experience.) But if you’re a dog person, as I am, those dog-owner vignettes will just punch you in the gut. None of Ashworth’s dog songs are about dogs dying, the way so many dog songs are. Instead, as he told Stereogum recently, he focuses on the good that people get from their dogs. And he accesses the raw emotional need that so many of us impose on our dogs. None of the songs linger too long on anything, but that feeling — Ashworth’s recognition of that feeling — is some heavy shit.
There are ways in which Animal Companionship reminds me of the stripped-bare emotional apocalypse of the last two Mount Eerie albums. Except Ashworth never deals with anything as traumatic as a wife’s death, and he tends to write from the points of view of fictional characters, not of himself. It’s not as bleak, either; there are moments of happiness, or at least sustenance, sprinkled all through Animal Companionship. But in its sharp and unrelenting and empathetic specificity, this is some real masterly heart-wrecker music. And if you’ve ever had a moment with “Woke Up New,” or with any songs like it, then Animal Companionship might do things to you.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Brockhampton’s as-yet-unheard major-label debut Iridescence.
• DIY-rap giant Milo’s thoughtfully wordy budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies.
• Mountain Man’s stripped-bare harmony-folk return Magic Ship.
• Joyce Manor’s economical and feelings-first pop-punker Million Dollars To Kill Me.
• The Field’s spacey dance album Infinite Moment.
• Bad Moves’ sparkling DIY power-pop debut Tell No One.
• Metric’s slick, crunchy, guitar-centric Art Of Doubt.
• Liars’ willfully eccentric TWTWF (Titles With the Word Fountain).
• Christine And The Queens’ iconoclastic pop album Chris.
• Human People’s dread-infused punk debut Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears.
• Arcade Fire member Richard Reed Parry’s solo LP Quiet River of Dust Vol. 1.
• Mutual Benefit’s utopian folker Thunder Follows the Light.
• Sumac’s experimental doom meditation Love In Shadow.
• New Pornographers/Woodpigeon side project Frontperson’s debut Frontrunner.
• Genre-blurring producer Ryan Hemsworth’s new one Elsewhere.
• Glammy Britpop greats Suede’s new one The Blue Hour.
• Beak>’s krautrock-inspired zoneout >>>.
• Voivod’s prog-metal opus The Wake.
• Hawkwind’s legacy space-rocker Road To Utopia.
• Mount Eerie’s live album (after).
• The archival stripped-down live Prince album Piano & A Microphone: 1983.
• The soundtrack to Ethan Hawke’s Blaze Foley biopic Blaze.