by Tyler Morgenstern, Staff Writer
On the title track of her latest EP, The State That We Are In, singer-songwriter Rachel Garlin finds herself suspended. “I got stuck somewhere in between…I’ve been reeling from the backlash of our crash course in chagrin. I am struck by the state that we’re in.” It’s a sentiment that resonates deeply in the wake of a singularly deranging year—one that tossed us headlong into confusing new arrangements of intimacy and strangeness, terrifying new rhythms of living and dying. When all is turned on its ear, what’s left to do but be struck by the absolute state of things? Out today, The State That We Are In dwells in this peculiar, stretched-out bewilderment, feeling out the world as if for the very first time.
Though Garlin’s earnest, unaffected vocals place her in league with the likes of Kathleen Edwards, The State That We Are In is distinguished by its unique and affecting lyrical sensibility. Intensely imagistic and unsparingly observed, her lyrics capture a decidedly contemporary kind of wonder—awe tinged with fear, shuddering hope in the face of slow-motion ruin. “Some fiascos are better seen from the sky,” Garlin sings, aghast at the speed with which we humans transform (and deform) the planet. “Man has a plan to build a canal then the railroad whizzes by.”
Almost in the same breath, however, she manages to snatch possibility from the jaws of environmental calamity: “It’s time to take a trip and strip the poison from the soil, dispense with it or drench it in some pomarosa oil…There’s a drought, but there’s a river with a mouth where we can swim.” For anyone who’s ever struggled to imagine a better future for this fast-warming planet, it’s an about-face that will ring distressingly true.
On “Some Weights are Hard to Bear,” the ‘state’ Garlin sings about is more local, drawing inspiration from her home in the Bay Area. Opening with a finger-picked guitar riff that smacks of The Eagles’ classic “Hotel California,” the track is less a story than an accretion of small, seemingly insignificant details, fleeting observations that nonetheless add up to a heavy weight. Kept aloft by Garlin’s breathy vocals, the lyrics twist and evolve as they repeat, as if suddenly shaded by smoke from a nearby wildfire—the kind that now routinely upends life in her home state. “She’s scattered in her sadness, lately,” Garlin sings, “she moves a box of ashes, daily / The lemon fire is burning, hazy / Some weights are hard to bear.”
Even in the tiny details of a quiet life, the gravity of planetary crisis makes itself known. Such layers of symbolism, testaments to the force of Garlin’s songwriting, are at the heart of The State That We Are In. This is an album about little things that tell big stories, about how to see the universe in the “slender bones and sinew” of an old lover (“Late to Bloom”). On “Seashells,” Garlin sings of a woman who keeps an abalone shell up her sleeve, who turns “a broken mussel shell into a skeleton key.” She may well be singing of herself.
The State That We Are In is available now on all streaming platforms.