As with any societal phenomenon, we all experience the substance-abuse-disorder epidemic differently.
If it doesn’t hit your family, your friend group, your old college friends, it’s mostly invisible. Maybe you see some numbers in the paper – Maine had two opioid overdose deaths per day in 2021 – but it’s still easy to think of it as a problem germane only to some sordid underworld.
Some cynical and heartless bastards have even mocked efforts at saving people battling addiction by falsely claiming the federal government would provide people with “crack pipes.”
Perhaps they should listen to Myles Bullen’s new “Mourning Travels.” The 13-track album is a study in managing the grief that swirls through the recovery community, the music community – any community that experiences repeated deaths, each more senseless than the last.
“Death feels cold,” Bullen whispers to introduce the opening track, “Hypothermic Anvil,” over indie-folk that would be at home in the Ghost of Paul Revere oeuvre. It is “like stuttering your words when you’re covering your hurt, and it sucks.” The steely retrospective gets increasingly emotional, an angry hurt infusing “how are they not here and I am still here?”
Hopefully, you haven’t had to ask yourself that question, but can understand it, nonetheless.
This album, though, is about getting past it. Ultimately, Bullen decides in track one, “the least we can be is nice to ourselves … Maybe I don’t need to die,” and here the pause really gets you: “yet.”
Bullen’s appeal comes in his radical openness, the gentleness of his approach, mirrored by friendly and chiming melodies, hand-drum beats, and one of the best uses of a ukulele in recent memory throughout the production. While it can seem toylike and ironic in so many hands, with Bullen its simplicity lends the idea that six strings would just be overwhelming.
It’s so effective on “Somewhere Else” because the meditative vibe Bullen builds with it is just desperate to explode, but there’s no huge backbeat that enters, no drop, just a bit of keyboard and Bullen’s resigned vocals: “The hardest lesson is to learn to love yourself.” Why were you so desperate for that song to explode, for something to happen? Why is it so hard to sit with yourself in quiet?
On “I’m No Meteorologist,” it’s a toy-like keyboard that opens, and Bullen plays the role of Steve on “Blues Clues”: “Hey there, it’s just me, checking in.” The metaphor of the song’s title does similar work, wondering how you’re doing, but providing no assurances it will all be OK. What does the future hold? Hell, I can’t even tell you if it’s going to rain tomorrow, and forecasting the future is dangerous. You don’t know who’s going to be there.
Midstream, Bullen drops into a classic hip-hop cadence: “You said that you would get healthy/ I wonder if you thought about what life’s like without me.”
But he hasn’t always been this sanguine. Look to something like “Horizons,” from 2018’s “Not Dead Yet,” and Bullen is aggressive, quick, crisp, with a big beat in the back and manic energy you will definitely not find here. Here it’s clear he’s evolved. Meditation, mental health, introspection, and the language of therapy are woven into everything here, right alongside anti-capitalist messages and concerns about climate change. He’s connected the dots.
“IDK” is a standout, infused with a childlike wonder that forces you to consider why it is that churches don’t pay taxes or why the connectivity of the internet has left so many people feeling alone, even while Bullen keeps it playful: “I don’t understand possums.” His guest, Sarah Violette, does him one better, wondering about the whereabouts of baby pigeons even as she considers the existence of evil and the justifications for racism.
“I don’t understand love or the way that I crave it,” she offers, the material a perfect deployment of her vocal style, a mix of wonder and disdain, caustic and inviting, “how birds are dinosaurs, I watch them in amazement.”
So, what’s the point? How do we make it through? “Still Be Friends” offers some ideas, even if it is almost brutally ironic: “Welcome to Hell,” Bullen greets you brightly. “Hello! Hi there!” Somehow, it doesn’t devolve into a cynicism that eats itself but rather manages to make you feel like maybe it’s not all that bad: “When the whole world burns, we’ll still be friends,” Bullen chants in the chorus.
Yes, it’s about connection. It’s about love. “All we have are memories,” Bullen offers in a sing-song in “Memories,” featuring a deep-voiced verse from Jesse the Tree that’s a yin-yang complement to Bullen. But somehow that truth isn’t depressing.
Maybe memories can be enough.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• MC Sole & DJ Pain with Unwoman, “Lightbringer” — Based in low-end string hits, Unwoman’s languid repeated vocals, and acoustic guitar, the dynamics when Sole enters each of the two verses absolutely explode, and Sole’s lyrics never disappoint: “Democrats in office, what the fuck, let’s get real/ It’s 2021, how’s that boot on your neck feel?”
• Wesley Allen Hartley, “Lovers of Harbors To Leave Behind” — Ostensibly just a demo for a track from an upcoming album, this piece is the best of him – lonesome, as expansive as his home state of Texas, and rippling with emotional energy: “But when the moon sits right, I’ll be a chewed up city slicker.”
• Kyle Morgan, “Younger at Most Everything” — If you liked the old-time Portland Trio “Tumbling Bones,” check out the title track from Morgan’s upcoming album. It’s stripped down, closely mic’d, and warms with string and organ. Welcome him back to town from his new Brooklyn digs when he plays Blue on March 3.
•Echo Response, “BIFAR” – The first single off the upcoming “Triangles,” this driving jam is an instrumental force. Word is the Jason Ingalls (Seekonk, Baltic Sea, Satellite Lot) project is putting a live band together with C$ Burns and others. If so, that’s a party.
• Aberdien, “With Blackened Sights” — A memorable track from “2003 EP,” which is quite literally a six-track album the band recorded in 2003 and is just out on Portland’s Bob Records. If you like early aughts pop-punk, this will satisfy you.
— Sam Pfeifle