Please hear this: Megan Slankard’s CD “A Token of the Wreckage,” is a most significant musical work. On the basis of this premier CD, I have become Megan Slankard’s fan for life. The title song alone had done that, but it’s only the beginning of the wonders of this album. Throughout, she expresses her performer/writer/artist soul in the now-quickening, now slowing cadences of modern songwriting, using even pop gloss as a tool to get her substantial, complex, oddly beautiful artistic vision across, in ways that make me want to listen again and again to catch every nuance of language and melody.
If you are looking for a review that says that Megan is a fantastic performer and that she makes really good pop music, well, that’s certainly extremely true. But please look under the hood with me:
Careful reading of these beautiful and often unexpected lyrics is almost mandatory to get the full effect and benefit of Slankard’s artless-seeming art. Yet In tune after memorable and accessible and hooky yet deep and complex tune, Megan delights with unexpected musical changes and startling turns of phrase. “Token” and songs like “Fair Enough and Farewell,” (“I’m such a little girl”) “Our Little Secret,” “Soundtrack” (“You’re like a movie directed by me”), “Beautiful Makeshift” (where a jazzy feel to start gives way to buttery pop, but with incisive and almost angry lines like “Not that I am one for your destruction,” which seems to me to be pure Megan and only Megan) and “The Last Thing You Say” (with its modern propulsive shaker beat and pulse changes) show that good, poppy pop rock is a perfectly useful tool for presenting music of substance.
There is real substance here. It took me a long time to get to the bottom of it, and please bear with me as I back into it. The third-to-last song on the CD is “The Last Thing You Say,” and I cried the entire morning after listening to it and reading the lyrics really closely. The singer of that song is lying in a pool of blood on the (kitchen) floor after being stabbed by her lover, and she is about to die. Her sight is dimming and she is listening, as the pounding of her own heart and blood (which you can hear in the percussion) make it hard for her to hear the last words he will say, as she says, and she is listening hard in case they are about her. She says that anything he does at this point will make her happy, and that she has loved him without thinking. And this is all rendered in hooky, delicious pop colors! When I grasped what the song was saying, when I realized that loss of life was an horrible possible outcome of loving for the character who sings these songs, I looked back at all the other songs that preceded this one and saw them in a new light, a new darkness, actually.
It is the culmination of the themes on the album, and it is very much an album, with songs that connect with each other and have their strongest effect when played in order. The main thrust seems to me to be that an intensely wise young person who knows even her own paucity of experience in the world is bridling at the loss of selfhood that love can seem to demand, the deadness and boredom that conventional adult life can be, and the fact that marriage and other markers of growing bring us one step closer to the end of our lives.
Though the album is predominantly about relationships and the young individual in relationships, the word “love” appears very infrequently, and some of those times it appears very darkly indeed. “The Last Thing You Say” starts “So love is this: A three-inch blade,” for instance.
Youth is mentioned repeatedly; an irony for me is that Megan Slankard may be young but her wisdom and insight, even and maybe especially when acknowledging her own confusion or age-appropriate lack of experience in the world, is remarkable. It is here that I would like to speak about the wreckage in the title of the CD; it seems to me the wreckage is the possible destructiveness of a relationship a young person enters in hope of it being lifelong, only to find that it isn’t a relationship that sustains the partners for long at all, something that actually hurts them. In these songs Megan, as protagonist and first-person singer, is wise enough to know that she, and maybe her partner, are perhaps not ready to settle, either down or for less than a satisfying future.
“The Pain Of Growing Up” is in almost same beat as the song before it on the CD, “The Happy Birthday,” but in urban and minor tonalities. I think it’s a key song, at the half-way point, the beginning of the second half. Here the singer confronts the realities that delimit the exuberance of youth. She and her lover, with whom she is kind of playing house though they don’t live together (“I love the thought of us, so young and mischievous, but oh so domesticated,” where “oh so domesticated” is not really domesticated at all) have to face the fact that they have big dreams, small money and will have to become more domesticated, perhaps, in order to have adult lives. And it’s not clear that an adult life is what they want if it means most of the deadening things that adult life has come to mean. In the end, the pain of growing up may be the pain of adult awareness about the many deadnesses.
“The Tragic Life Of Caleb” is the best of country singer/songwriter acoustic fingerpicker music, but with an edge and personalness not common in country tunes, and its lyrics strike deep. The song is about the singer having called off her wedding to a man because “I’m scared of being bored with you.” The singer is aware enough of her own confusion to be apologetic, but she notes that her lover is mean and she would like to see him “choke and fight to breathe.” Yet the chorus, “When I die Caleb, what happens to the air I breathe? What happens to my hopes? What will happen to my dreams?” seem more about the death of selfhood the singer might suffer by marrying than about her physical death. But it’s clearly a life-or-death matter to her. We can clearly see how this is related to the murder in “The Last Thing You Say.”
I could go on like this through each song, and I may do so in a continuation of this review, but there is something clear and brilliant here. It is Megan Slankard’s sure-handed presentation of major, major themes as the best drama, the best of the playwright’s craft, here rendered in song after arresting song.
I want very much to mention that the production is highly polished throughout, and that the musicians and the arrangements and the musical underpinnings of the lyrics are simply superb. It’s clear the musicians and the producers and engineers understood Megan’s vision. I could single out James DePrato’s stellar guitar work on the title song ( a song so important to me that I will write an entire review of it separately), but the ensemble as a whole, the beauty of all the music by Danny Blau on guitars and keyboards (I assume it is he who plays the keyboard in the video, and he is a player after my own heart), Jeff Symonds on bass and Kyle Caprista on drums, unifies the album and provides such great underlying strength to the proceedings.
From the cover art with the doll doubtlessly representing the singer being rowed either away from a wreck at sea or across the River Styx by the Ogre Boatman, to the included video (an incredible work in itself, another, different, drama) of the title song, this CD is a huge achievement for Ms Slankard and would be for any writer and performer. Individually, these songs will parse as the obvious hits that they are. Taken together they are an extraordinary document, the work of a budding genius. To Megan Slankard I offer this review as a token of my esteem for this ubertalented true artist who has so much to tell me, at so many years older than she, about her experience and understanding as an awake and aware young person with a unique perspective about self and relationships.
I know I haven’t gotten it all, haven’t done this work justice. I’m still digging through. There is more to say about how “I’m not going to let you win” and “you’re not going to win” appear in different songs, about how getting the noise to stop in the last song cycles back to getting the noise to stop in the first song, about “Show Up” and the singer taking charge at the end of the CD but I can’t write any more about this album I’ve lived inside for the last two weeks or so. I’m too busy listening again.
I have said that if you only take one CD recommendation from me this year, please let it be this recommendation, this CD. It will pay you back so repeatedly and so strongly.