Ugh. Romance is the butter to the bread of rock music, and sometimes I feel like I’ve clogged my damn arteries with the stuff. You know how it is – you can dash the thought of someone out of your head, throw yourself into a million projects, and hang with the friends you know actually love you. You can pretend that you’re not afraid of death, act all cool and pretend you still remember all the books you read in college. But the crush comes back, doesn’t it – in the dead of night, after you’ve laid awake an hour in bed, alongside the crushing thought that you might just literally die right now if you fall asleep, and that person in your dreams will never miss you.
I’m sorry. No, I’m not sorry. Totally Mild are trying to tell me something and I don’t want to hear them. This has nothing to do with objective facts. The Melbourne crew have blossomed into quite the bombast with Her, their second album after 2015’s buzz-buzzy lullaby debut Down Time. And Elizabeth Mitchell has one of those voices, which critics will try and fail to pin down, as much as her butterfly wings flutter around them. That’s all in the clear. But my trouble is this: does romance consume me utterly? Is that what crushes ambition and the will to live? Totally Mild tell me 'yes', and I don’t know how to respond but shudder and relent to a shot of tequila (and the slow-burning nervous breakdown that follows).
See, Her hides its most crippling blows behind a sleek frame, supple and shiny like a lovingly restored convertible. Mitchell muses her self-worth in the faded gold of a forgotten radio era, with breezy riffs, finely tuned acoustic sparkle, and a splash of Spector theatrics (especially on lead single ‘Today Tonight’, which we’ll get back to in a sec). The links to the past are so casual, you could hardly spot the handshakes - so you could ease into the semi-tropic, Mac DeMarco-ish ‘Underwater’ like you would into a bubble bath at the end of a long work shift, and completely miss Mitchell crooning “I am nothing to stay alive for / I am nothing to die for”. Paisley pop jingles and gentle stop-starts render such synopses on romance’s crushing hold as prosaic things, plush cushions to prop against as familiar as Rod Stewart on an AOR station.
And yet, Mitchell casts such a scathing eye, one that glares out beyond her cozy blue settings. Throughout Her, she explores the depths and limits of ambition – the social conditioning that curtails our aspirations (‘Sky’), the guilt that follows obsessive yearning (‘More’), the physical strain that winds forward our body clocks (‘Working Like A Crow’). What’s most striking, though, is how Mitchell condemns herself. Cue in ‘Today Tonight’, one of the liveliest cuts on the record: ”I am strong and sensible / but I don’t want to be alone”. Mitchell calls this an ode to “queer domesticity”, but women of any sexuality who consider themselves “independent” can likely relate: why does romance confine them to the house? On here, and on the aforementioned ‘Underwater’, Mitchell blames no one but herself for her shortcomings – which, again, resonates on such a subliminal level, I can hear my own insecurities in the hammock’s sway. Desire erases us slowly, in such bliss that we can’t even perceive our steady descent: ”I just realized / I was underwater the whole time / breathing air into you.”
Yet – despite the resonance of Mitchell’s insights, despite the time-tested muscle in such solid tunes as ‘Take Today’ - Her feels anti-climatic. The slow sizzle of the Roy Orbison-esque 'Down Together' pulls a silky veil over the album, not a curtain – not opaque enough to suggest a final act, yet not transparent enough to reveal the supine bodies on the other side. These questions that Mitchell poses, though, aren’t the ones that usually resolve with neat little bows in real life. You can fortify your own ego, break static cycles, even hold mortality in your own hands – but the one crush that keeps you up at night will still clash with your biggest dreams, and what can you do about that? God. I feel done in. Hand me another shot of tequila.
7Lee Adcock's Score