Braids have a flair for the dramatic. Throughout their four albums, the Canadian trio have been an outlet for unhinged catharsis. They are masters of outsized emotion, approaching their music with a theatrical zeal that confers everyday anxieties with a heightened, fantastical edge. In the same way that a song in a musical leads a character to a breakthrough, Braids songs tend to be about naming and explaining in explicit and specific terms.
On Shadow Offering, their fourth album, bandleader Raphaelle Standell-Preston is overcome with dread. She wonders why it’s so hard to find a love that feels good, she examines what her own love lacks, she sings candidly about her own self-loathing for even thinking about frivolous personal problems when the world is falling apart around her. She presents these fears not as a persistent ache but as something that is going to rip her apart. A Braids song is an opportunity to give yourself over to melodrama — the songs on Shadow Offering express full-tilt devotion, excessive horniness, messy political screeds that all feel like they were ripped from the pages of a diary.
“Saying things out loud can help us not feel so alone, can help validate our natural fears about the future of our world, and can bring to light some of the hard questions that many of us are asking ourselves,” the band wrote in a statement announcing the album. “I believe that art can change our relationship to fear.” When Standell-Preston sings about those fears, you want to listen, even when those fears make you want to look away. Deep In The Iris‘ “Miniskirt,” still perhaps the best individual song Braids have ever put out, is a confrontational and commanding song about societal misogyny. “Fear Of Men,” from this album, covers similar territory. Standell-Preston sings about wanting to trust men again, but she feels continually let down by reality. “Wake up, wake up/ I’m doing all the labor/ All your heavy lifting/ Get your shit together/ We’re getting really tired,” she sings. “Here on my two feet/ I’m just trying to beat/ All the fears that hold me back,” she sings at its swirling conclusion. “The fear of men/ Don’t want to fear them.”
Standell-Preston’s lyrics about all of this are wordy and precise — she allows for a lot of equivocation, doubles back on her ideas and shades them in with a fine point. As Standell-Preston has grown more confident as the leader of her band, she’s grown more frustrated at the inability to change the ills of the world. She uses her massive voice to try and force unpredictable patterns into submission. She follows incessant thought loops like a bloodhound, incensed at the lack of a grand answer that makes all of the bad that happens make sense.
The music on Shadow Offering follows that lead. Braids songs often sound like they’re in conversation with themselves — they reflect and refract and fold in on themselves. Even when the songs feel compact, they’re blooming out in a dozen different directions. The band’s other members, Taylor Smith and Austin Tufts, move with Standell-Preston’s every narrative swing; the three of them operate in an impressive lock-step on this album that makes it feel like the culmination of what Braids have been building towards over the last 10 years. It’s glimmering and assured, an album that’s constantly refining and one-upping itself. The Canadian band’s songs have always been massive, bursting at the seams with ideas, but they’ve never sounded as good or as crystallized as they do on Shadow Offering.
These songs are visceral and organic — booming drums and thick bass lines and thumping keys recreate the synthetic heights of their earlier work, but here they sound more grounded. Braids have never felt more like a rock band than they do on Shadow Offering. These songs sound huge and are full of gorgeous textures and grandiose, almost operatic bids at transcendence. They co-produced the album with former Death Cab For Cutie whiz Chris Walla, and he teases out all of the guitars that they had been mutating on their past albums to sound like anything but guitars. They give themselves over to the instrument, utilize it in dizzying ways to shapeshift alongside them to go from lush to spindly to concrete. These songs are constantly in motion, apoplectic in their constant forward momentum.
Standell-Preston matches that energy by becoming more desperate, more struggling, more of everything. She has a voice that can sell dramatic shifts in emotion and she doesn’t shy away from expressing polar opposites, often on the same song. On “Young Buck,” she sings about getting involved with a hot young thing who she knows deep down is bad for her. He’s “the blaring example of what I am drawn towards and should strongly move away from,” as she so poetically puts it. She toes the line between enjoying the emptiness of that fling and wanting to lose herself completely in something bigger than a seedy tryst. That dramatic yearning fuels Standell-Preston — a desire to have this boy who does not care about her suddenly learn to love her back. By the end of the song, she dismisses the entire affair as “pointless,” repeating it until it hopefully becomes true rather than indicative of some deep character flaw that can’t be changed.
But Standell-Preston is incapable of being numbed to a situation. She never lets herself off the hook — that’s a recurring theme in the lyrics on Shadow Offering: the feeling that you’re feeling too much all of the time, that you can never run away from your own mind. It’s why her lyrics always second guess what she just said, shoot off into asides that undercut any solid declarations she’s making. This tendency reaches its peak on “Snow Angel,” a nine-minute opus that seems to be just about everything, written in the days following the 2016 election. Standell-Preston breaks into an eviscerating spoken word piece in which she puts herself up as a sacrificial offering. “Am I only just realizing the injustice that exists?” she asks herself. “Cloaked in white privilege since the day I was born/ Blinders on.” It’s vulnerable and on-the-nose and blisteringly honest, and the band manages to absolutely sell this crisis of conscience. The music crests around her, gets muddled and ugly. “Stab her and watch her bleed!” she’s screaming by the end, a long-simmering fury unleashed.
An overwhelming sense of powerlessness hangs over Shadow Offering. It often feels like the band is shouting at a brick wall and hoping for an answer back. “Just let me get through to you,” Standell-Preston sings out desperately into the ether on one track. “Myself at the age of 27/ Questioning that the universe doesn’t trust me, have a plan for me” goes another. But as desperate as she sometimes gets for answers on these songs, she never sounds weak. Braids wrap up all of their fears in glittery, shimmering songs that make that helplessness feel invigorating.
“I tire of me sometimes/ Just like I tire of you,” Standell-Preston sighs to herself on the closing track “Note To Self.” “Only I’m stuck with this/ Can’t leave this body, this voice/ Just momentary distance/ When I close my eyes for silence.” It gets exhausting to feel constantly let down by everything around you. But just like we can’t escape our bodies, we can’t escape the world that we’re living in. Braids have found some nugget of hope in their inability to enact change. The music that has resulted from that struggle is some of the most purposeful and intentional that the band has ever made. Shadow Offering confronts fears head-on: by acknowledging them and trying not to let that fear dominate your life.
Shadow Offering is out 6/19 via Secret City. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bob Dylan’s first album of original songs in eight years, Rough And Rowdy Ways, which we’ll have more to say about soon.
• Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher.
• Neil Young’s shelved 1975 album Homegrown, which you can read more about here.
• Teyana Taylor’s guest-heavy The Album.
• Amnesia Scanner’s distorted, dread-inducing Tearless.
• Jazz-funk legend Roy Ayers’ first new album in nine years, JID002.
• Gum Country’s harsh twee debut Somewhere.
• Owen’s roiling and sentimental The Avalanche.
• Joe Pernice’s RICHARD.
• Paul Weller’s On Sunset.
• Phantom Planet’s Devastator.
• John Legend’s Bigger Love.
• Trapt’s, um, Shadow Work.
• Switchfoot’s Covers EP.