Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon retreated and lost himself in a cabin in the middle of the Wisconsin wilderness a few years ago to write and record an album of enchanting songs that he hoped would help him get over a girl. All of the losing and all of the seclusion that Vernon put himself through, during one of those bitch of a winters that are known to make people whimper in these parts actually ended up being his rescue and the album couldn't have been interpreted as anything but a salvation. It's a story that's been talked about aplenty this year as For Emma, Forever Ago slowly became one of the most beloved albums of 2008. Only time will tell what Heartless Bastards lead singer and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom put herself through after what she must have gone through to come up with the material that shows up on her band's latest and greatest record, The Mountain. She likely didn't transform herself into a recluse, living in pork and beans and other canned or boxed non-perishables, as Vernon did, mostly because Austin doesn't have those kinds of god-forsaken/god-blessed, cold as a witch's titty spots where someone can just hunker down with books and logs and not have any desire - nor would it be advised - to enter the out-of-doors for a good three or four months, as the seasons reset themselves into the time that can support life and growth. The way to get rid of a wart is to freeze it off and the way to ward an attacked heart of its maladies is to do the same, to let the frigid air decide what lives and what stays behind to perish. Wennerstrom had to have had someone or a series of someones do her some significant damage, to the point where love is a pain and mere trust, or a lifesaver, is out of the question. It was the most serious of affronts, the most psychologically and spiritually damaging of fates that got to her and changes her, at least temporarily. It took her some time to navigate what had happened, to come to some sort of reasoning that could allow her the amount of perspective to see things the way that she needed them to be seen. Unlike Vernon, who seemed to be able to work all of his toughest issues out within that cabin, on his very own - finding that golden catharsis and second wind in the uneven floorboards and creaky walls, Wennerstrom either needs lifelines or needs more help. It could have just been more severe, whatever put her into the tragic state she found herself in during the writing process or it could have been that there is no one way to get around the kinds of self-doubt and wicked loathing that happens when one person informs you that your exclusive company is no longer required for their happiness. It's no longer even close. Wennerstrom sounds like a bosom buddy of both Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon and Frank Black, ruminating with a sort of aloof quality, or non-drawl drawl that denotes her as someone who, if she's going to get worked up, it's still going to be fairly difficult to detect unless specific words are uttered, specific scenes are set. She gives the warm-blooded ramifications of what she's been subjected to, cold-blooded intentions. She sings about wicked suns and abducting winds, not to mention some nightmarish and frightening oceans and seas. The natural wonders are all plotted to get her, or are at the least poised to pounce when the time is nigh. She sings about choices she can make, between gloominess and happiness and when it's all over, she remains asking what good it would be to align with the latter. She's akin to unhappiness, or was in this song-writing instance, penning some songs that chronicle the end of her world, but don't ever take us to the spot where she's going to have to pull the trigger, whether it's fateful or metaphorical. It's emotional and it's trying. She's been put through a good number of ordeals and she's not come out unscathed. She needs help making sense of it all and she's got a lot of work to do, so she makes sure that the lights are all turned down as low as they can be while still be considered working and the people listening in can never be completely sure whether she's going to be okay or not tonight. She might as well be as worried as we are.
Heartless Bastards Official Site
Fat Possum Records