Review | Slaughter Beach, Dog - Safe and Also No Fear
Slaughter Beach, Dog writes an album for the anxious and detail-oriented.
Jake Ewald – the singer/songwriter behind Slaughter Beach, Dog – writes by accumulating observations. The songs on his new album, Safe and No Fear, read like curated collections of short, isolated thoughts. Take the third verse of “One Down,” which reads like a depressed elementary schooler’s poem:
“I live upstairs
I wash my hair
I take my meals alone
Inside the parlor room
I win the war
I feed the poor
I get anxious
And I curl up on the floor”
On the album’s most successful songs, an thread of emotion connects all the seemingly random thoughts, encompassing everything. These tracks remind me of ghost stories. In a good scary story, the haunting isn’t confined to any one object or person: it’s everywhere. Everything, even mundane, ordinary things, feel connected by a subtle wrongness. Take the second verse of “Petersburg,” which Ewald sings raggedly, his voice almost peaking in the mix:
“Daily he would read the news Tie up his busted walking shoes
Take the train somewhere else and count his money there
Servants in the servants den Spit in the food they cook for him
And rattle off a list of men they favor more than me”
Who is “he”? Why do his servants hate him? Who is “me”? It's not clear, yet the tape hiss, audible acoustic guitar squeaks, and Ewald’s voice permeate the song like a ghost, making it clear that all these details are crucial parts of a sad, ancient, heartbreaking story. The song ends suddenly – a few dropped, sour guitar notes, what sounds like the whir of a helicopter in the background – leaving the listener with a sinking, haunted echo of regret.
On the album’s less successful tracks, the evocative details don't quite cohere. For every heart-wrenching song on Safe and No Fear, there's another that comes frustratingly close to communicating something specific and complex, but gets lost in the minutiae. “Black Oak” is an atmospheric narrative track that places Ewald’s voice at the front of the mix while a guitar hypnotically loops in the background. The tightness and repetitiveness of the groove manages to build a tense atmosphere, until a breakdown, like a huge exhale, arrives to let out the pent-up emotion. The song feels influenced by mewithoutyou and La Dispute, bands that build songs around narratives and make their instrumentation ebb and swell with the intensity of the story. Unfortunately, the story – about a man who drunkenly rendezvous with his girlfriend, only to be killed for unknown reasons – doesn't deliver on the creepiness of the atmosphere.
If you’ve ever written fiction, you’ve probably heard the advice “show, don't tell” – as in, it’s better to let the reader know how characters feel by describing how they act than by directly telling the reader that “Joe feels sad.” There are always certain writers who take “show, don’t tell" too far, and include random details about how the characters act and dress in the hope that all the minutiae will add up to show something compelling. Ewald’s always been an artist who writes by collecting odd, curiosity-inducing details that sometimes add up to a bigger picture and sometimes don’t. While the details in “Petersburg” feel connected by a raw desperation, “Black Oak” delivers such dispassionate, randomly specific observations that the overall emotional significance of the story gets lost. After ten listens, I'm still not sure what I’m supposed to feel towards the characters or what lessons I should take away from the morbid ending. It ends up sounding more like a collection of random excerpts from noir novels (with such literary lines as, “she was standing at the black oak, carving poems in the bark”) than a coherent song.
While “Petersburg” and “Black Oak” benefit from eccentric, lo-fi arrangements, the production of many tracks on Safe and No Fear is textured, gentle and low-key. About half the songs on the album – the happier, more relaxed half – soften the drums and forefront simple, lulling acoustic passages. For the most part, I enjoy the gentler organic textures of songs like "Dogs" and "Anything." The gentle, repetitive acoustic licks remind me of being a kid in the backseat of my parent’s car, surrounded by warm, still air. I remember the hours when the only requirement was watching the trees, the towns, and hearing the songs on the radio pass by.
However, Slaughter Beach, Dog often coasts on that sense of warmth to propel songs that aren’t fully fleshed out. Take “Map of the Stars,” a compendium of details about a person who’s clearly important to Ewald: “You’re tied with red twine/your car smells like cigarettes all of the time." But, as in “Black Oak,” the details don’t add up to a compelling big picture – we don’t learn much about Ewald’s relationship with the person being described, the song structure’s extremely similar to other Slaughter Beach, Dog tracks, and the production doesn’t communicate much other than generic good vibes. As a result, the track goes down easy but doesn’t stick.
Safe and No Fear sees Ewald try to communicate many emotions with essentially the same lyrical and compositional style (the short lines, the pauses, the repetitive acoustic guitar passages), but it works best when he writes about anxiety.
When I feel anxious, it seems that both success and failure are simple, natural and easy. It feels like you have no control over either, both are equally likely to occur, and everything hangs in the balance. On the album’s standout track, “One Day,” Ewald communicates that anxious feeling by presenting two futures – one of success, one of failure, both inevitable. It starts off hopeful, with the promise of release from fear:
“One day you’ll be good
You won’t know why it scared you.
You’ll act just like you should
You’ll fix that awful hairdo, any day now
Any day now.”
But catastrophic failure is equally likely:
“One day you’ll be stoned
In a school supply department
And you’ll freak out and run back home, and you’ll cry in your apartment
Any day now, any day now.”
“One Day” balances the possibility of success against the possibility of failure and tries to find peace with the inevitability of both. The short, direct phrases make each option sound more extreme – success more beautiful, failure more crippling. Uncertainty hangs in the pauses between lines. Meanwhile, the instrumentation merges the threatening tone of “Petersburg” and the reassuring vibes of “Map of the Stars,” digging into the place between safety and fear. While Safe and No Fear is a frustrating, uneven album, “One Day” reminded me of why I fell in love with Ewald’s writing in the first place. He makes poetry out of just getting through the day. Best Track: "One Day" Worst Track: "Map of the Stars"