Jake Ewald started Slaughter Beach, Dog as an outlet for characters. Feeling restless in his main band at the time, Modern Baseball — whose songs required visceral emotional transparency — he created the fictional town of Slaughter Beach and populated it with people who were down-on-their-luck and complicated, earnest and trying. The characters were often inspired by Ewald’s own experiences or the experiences of people he knew, but the freedom to mess with the details allowed his characters to take on a painful clarity.
“It feels like I’m stepping outside of myself a little bit in trying to see myself in the world as opposed to just seeing myself alone in a room. More just thinking about relationships between me and other people, or just relationships between other people and other communities,” Ewald said in an interview a couple years ago. “It feels a lot more interesting, because you can only get so much depth out of writing only about yourself. It just feels kind of selfish after a while, and closed-off.”
With Slaughter Beach, Dog’s third album, Ewald deepens his repertoire of fake people whose hearts beat all too hard. Safe And Also No Fear is like a good short story collection, where you can glean enough personal details about the writer to get an idea of their point-of-view, but the focus is on other people and how they can be reflective of the world as a whole. Ewald has become a master of character sketches, intimations of reality that feel more real than life itself.
Take “Good Ones,” which tells a story of addiction and mistrust and rose-colored glasses. “Sometimes the good ones/ Leave before you’ve even seen them there at all,” he sings. “Sometimes the good ones stay home/ Waiting on government calls.” There’s a sense of lost potential, like if these good ones weren’t going through problems of their own maybe they’d turn into something great. Ewald continues: “Sometimes the good ones like you best/ Before you’re hooked on aerosols/ Sometimes the good ones aren’t quite good as you had recalled.”
On Safe And Also No Fear, Ewald is benefitted by the addition a full band, who were there from the writing stages through to the completion of the album. Safe And Also No Fear sounds more well-equipped to execute Ewald’s vision than the past two Slaughter Beach, Dog albums, which he largely wrote and put together alone. The band — made up of his former Modern Baseball bandmate Ian Farmer, All Dogs’ Nick Harris, and Superheaven’s Zack Robbins — give these personal songs even larger stakes. They expand on Ewald’s rambling folk-rock palette and give it more heft and surety.
But Slaughter Beach, Dog is a project that is, at its heart, still about ambiguity, both musically and narratively. Most of the songs lack a definitive resolution, either eschewing a last-chorus payoff or leaving the questions it poses open-ended, the portraits it paints not entirely defined. When they do close the book, it tends to be crushing.
The best example of this is “Black Oak,” a seven-minute dual narrative about a drunk driver and his lover. The first half of the song finds him stumbling out of a party and into his car, listening to radio for a sign and drawn off the road by a vision of her “standing at the black oak/ carving poems in the bark.” The perspective then shifts to a beleaguered woman in a cafe who is working on a story (“her bloodied saber drawn/ marking up to the manuscript”) who gets a phone call that sets all that careful plotting aside: “They found him at the black oak/ They dug him up last night.” The song descends into a thoughtful instrumental, Ewald’s voice cutting through unintelligibly like the static on the AM dial.
You get the sense that occasionally, or maybe more often than not, Ewald is singing about potential different versions of himself that time may have borne out: an alternate reality where he never played music, never was in a popular band, was just a regular guy living and working and struggling in Philadelphia. A drunk, a dissatisfied writer, an addict — someone who is just trying to get by. There’s also the feeling that he still might become these these people, that life is too long and impossible to predict. “You were five and you were 10 and you were 19/ One day you’ll be 84,” he sings on the final song of the album. “With your sister, you would talk about growing old/ You’re not talking anymore.”
By focusing on different characters, Ewald is able to highlight all of these possibilities, and nothing can be summed up neatly or concisely or with any conviction. Its last lines are about finding a personal connection among the vastness of the world, that one-to-one contact that makes the life move forward for just a few more minutes: “Anything you want to know, you can find out/ Any place you want to see/ I can promise I will be a friend to you/ If you will be a friend to me.”
Tellingly, the album’s evocative title, Safe And Also No Fear, has no place in these songs because it’s an unattainable goal, a promise on the horizon that all of its characters are striving toward. “One day you’ll be good/ You won’t know why it scared you,” Ewald sings on one of the tracks. “You’ll act just like you should/ You’ll fix that awful hairdo/ Any day now.” Safe And Also No Fear takes life day by day, each one hopefully getting just a little bit better than the last.
Safe And Also No Fear is out 8/2 on Lame-O Records. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Ty Segall’s striking and reliable First Taste.
• Black Dresses’ surprisingly tender but still bonkers LOVE AND AFFECTION FOR STUPID LITTLE BITCHES.
• Russian Circles’ glowering Blood Year.
• Bad Heaven Ltd.’s emotional and resilient strength.
• Cross Record’s otherworldly self-titled.
• Tennis System’s gnarly, humungous Lovesick.
• Clairo’s Rostam-produced alt-pop debut Immunity.
• Cherie Curie and Brie Darling’s first collaborative album The Motivator.
• Young Guv’s breezy GUV I.
• Mabel’s soulful High Expectations.
• The Bird And The Bees’ Interpreting The Masters: A Tribute To Van Halen.