It’s easy to talk about pain and trauma when you’re making music. These days, it’s about as essential on the road to acclaim as pushing the boundaries of genre and having a sense of humour. You’ll see artists discussing these concepts abstractly, and then you hear the music and it’s just boilerplate; none of it feels particularly real, even if it comes from an honest place. Then there’s music that sounds raw but keeps its vulnerability perfectly obscured. It takes time and guts to pierce through that veil, and I’m impressed by any songwriter who reaches that threshold. But there’s a line between pain as an experience and tragedy as a story that still so few are willing to traverse. “Memory always twists the knife/ Nothing will ever be as vivid as the darkest time of my life,” Karly Hartzman, who leads the Asheville, North Carolina band Wednesday, sings wearily on ‘What’s So Funny’, almost as if admitting defeat. Yet their music – in the past more poised to amble through the darkness – now zones in on that blurry space in ways that are immediate, glorious, and totally arresting.
Rat Saw God, the follow-up to Twin Plagues and Wednesday’s Dead Oceans debut, is a triumph of razor-sharp focus, churning intensity, and natural ambition. By this point, the group – rounded out by guitarist Jake Lenderman, lap steel player Xandy Chelmis, and drummer Alan Miller – is so in sync that it sounds like they’re carrying stimuli through the same nervous system while eliciting different responses. In the ten seconds before we first hear Hartzman’s voice on opener ‘Hot Rotten Grass Smell’, all sensory receptors are activated, the loud signal waking the body into alertness. The first half-minute of ‘Got Shocked’ is spent reorienting after the shock and queasiness left over from the mind-melting catharsis of ‘Bull Believer’, the 8-minute single in which Hartzman delivers one of the most tortured and thunderous performances you’ll probably ever hear. “I’m told that I screamed and looked up/ Then I sat down and wept after the amp got unplugged,” she recounts.
Passed down from person to person: that’s one way a memory gets registered. Some of the ones on Rat Saw God are sourced from people in Hartzman’s life, yet she has a unique penchant for combining fact and fiction. ‘Quarry’ cruises through several households on a cul-de-sac, describing an imagined world that fits real stories like that of her dad accidentally burning an entire field of cotton and keeping it secret. ‘Bath County’ relays the scene of an overdose and distills it to its barest ingredients: “Drunken laughter/ Violence after/ Killing the heat/ Salt strips the pain.” No matter where they come from, these scraps add up to, if not a full picture, then a life lived on the edges – not just before and after the worst kicks in, but right in the thick of it.
Hartzman doesn’t shy away from memories that run closer to her core, but they spill out in more than one form. She offers fragments that are enough to provoke a reaction but negate any speculation about details; on ‘Hot Rotten Grass Smell’ they’re fairly isolated, ‘Formula One’ gets a little hazier, while on ‘Bull Believer’ they curdle into an epic, astonishingly heavy whole. Befitting its anthemic presentation, ‘Chosen to Deserve’ structures them into a rather straightforward account of her past – not for the listener’s sake, of course, but as a show of commitment to a romantic relationship. It’s the most grounded, life-affirming moment on the record, and its placement right in the middle could indicate a turning point.
Yet there’s no clear-cut division between past and present on Rat Saw God, and that’s perhaps Hartzman’s greatest achievement as a writer. Pieces of them both are scattered across songs, stirred up by some random occurrence and connected through basic instinct – often smell. “I ran like hell into the burning house/ It’d been too long since I had felt the sting,” she sings on ‘Got Shocked’. The song’s lyrics may seem muddled and disjointed, but the band consoles by summoning an electric current more uplifting than paralyzing (just listen to Lenderman’s leads, which seem to warp and weep alongside her). That weightless sensation culminates in ‘Turkey Vultures’, which spirals upward until her past is “a minefield beneath me.” As distant as it might seem, the damage cannot be erased: “At night I don’t count stars/ I count the dark.” After documenting all the unspeakable ways trauma continues to imprint itself, the broadness of the statement feels revelatory.
For all the darkness – the blurriness – that Rat Saw God digs into, what it drags along with it is never a lack of clarity. On the contrary, these mostly coming-of-age tales, lived or otherwise absorbed, have sharpened so many other senses. Throughout the album, Hartzman is acutely aware of irony, especially as it pertains to religion (“There’s a sex shop off the highway/ With a biblical name”), aligns humans with other animals (“Bird flies into the window every day at the same time/ It’ll never learn but it also wouldn’t die”), and, on songs like ‘Bull Believer’, fuses allegory and truth to striking effect. Hartzman’s descriptions never feel overbearing or exaggerated, but heightened in their reality. The blood stays fresh on the page but the pain takes on different dimensions. Comedy is an unintended consequence, not an antidote. It all blends together. It’s all real.
And in the strangest contradiction, it fosters an appreciation for the kind of beauty that remains undetectable by most. ‘TV in the Gas Pump’, the album’s closing track, is made up of images from life on the road that should induce anxiety, mirrored in the distorted, screeching guitars. They blare and brush past, but Hartzman keeps them behind, not beside her, as she retains a kind of wistful tenderness. She won’t get swept up in the debris, standing there to lay witness and remember, as if to say: What else could one possibly have asked for?