by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
Alright. Listen. We’re all dealing with it and even though we struggle with the seemingly endless grab-bag of our own emotional ignorance and stunted growth. Even though we can practically hear the crunch and shatter of it beneath our feet. Even though we watch ourselves self-destruct like it’s up on a movie screen, like none of our rallying and insistent cheering can make a difference, we still get our hopes and dreams wrapped up like we can affect some type of change...in the movies, right? We’re still talking about movies, right?
I mean, what we’re really talking about here is ourselves and our innate human ability to unfailingly fail ourselves and our efforts to grow, to mature, and to adhere to the template of success in which we all imagine ourselves. Emotional growth, which year-by-year becomes more complicated by our increasingly ardent screen addictions, lack of empathy, and arrested development, somehow continues to feel more slippery the closer we get to it. It’s no wonder, given the pandemic proportions that this internal struggle has managed to prevail to, that so much studio time has been given to the struggle to grow.
Jack, the recording project of Brooklynite Brittany Costa, sells this struggle short by defining her latest release, Alchemical Rounds, broadly as “about the relationship between light and dark in ourselves as humans.” Yes, it certainly is about that, but in much more specific terms. Costa filters her modern inner turmoil through the still-popular stylistic lens of nineties indie-rock, alternately harsh, scrappy, and always tuneful.
Without ever glimpsing a lyric sheet, it’s clear that Costa’s inner life is teeming with turmoil. Song titles like “Blue,” “Anxiety,” “A Kick/A Knife,” “Fear of,” and “A Red Sky Forming” all imagine someone battered, bruised, and gazing heavenward only to be met with the impending doom of an apocalyptic skyline. Maybe Costa recognized how daunting those song titles made the record seem and subsequently lightened the tone with the second halves titles: “Dirt,” Boxes,” “What Grows,” and “Timmy,” if you were wondering. And certainly the contrast between the latter half of the record’s lyrical content and the second half exists, but is not nearly as pronounced as the titles might have you believe.
Like I said earlier, these songs ARE about inner conflict, whether it be fighting with ourselves over our relative lack of maturity, or finding a way to be more resolute in our love lives, Costa is working across the latticework of her heart and mind with these songs. Openers “Blue” and “Anxiety,” both similar in song dynamics, poignantly illustrate the monopolizing effects her inner life has on her outer life. The former postures a tender admission into the type of supercilious declaration that only someone feeling truly vulnerable could. Despite the song’s closing admission that “my lover’s needs are less than mine/or in a different key that does not rhyme” is somehow painted blue by the song’s opening sentiment “I thought I swallowed all my bright blue love down but when we’re together it starts to come around up and out of my lungs? up and out of my heart.” Fittingly, the second song, “Anxiety,” brusquely opens with a trash-heap of grunge guitars, dissonantly battling over whatever will become the core lead of the song. When the dissonance falls away, what is left is a enigmatically tender guitar lead. Exploring the irony of anxiety, the song paints an image of Costa at her weakest, bones exposed, and the seemingly herculean tasks required despite this. It’s hard to not feel that empathetic pang when hearing “Anxiety” as it so precisely reminds of the ways in which anxiety not only grips you, but the way it makes the rest of the world feel insurmountable.
If you’ve read this far, it probably sounds like Costa’s description was correct you’re thinking "Bro, this is totally about the relationship between light and dark within ourselves". But with the last lines of “Anxiety” the record takes an invigorating turn for the modern. That song’s closing lines ring throughout the rest of the record as Costa sings “my hands are shaking/ fingers searching for love and honesty my legs are breaking/crumbling from all the standing, waiting.” This idea of being eminently broken and waiting for that obscure “something” to inspire change or hope or maybe even the explosion that ultimately ends it all. Being asked to wait, despite all of the worry and distress that it already takes to navigate our own emotions and the world around us, feels like the hardest task of all and it’s something that we all seem endlessly wrapped in: waiting for the train, waiting for a check, waiting for love, waiting for a more dependable moral compass to form, etc.
“A Kick/A Knife” and “Fear of,” the latter of which also contains the album’s most melodic moments, both navigate the difficulty of doing what is right, rather than what the culture defines as responsible. Whereas “A Kick/A Knife” rouses itself to approach life with the same instinctual abandon that sex engenders, “Fear Of” defines the unnatural ways in which fear guides our decision making, albeit framed within the confines of a rotten relationship.
And in the truest of narrative fashion, just as the weight of “A Red Sky Forming” imagery threatens to crush the listener, the song itself saves the day with a transcendent slow-build ballad about being in the grips of the aforementioned growth, leaving the “doubt” of her youth behind and entering more mature, but no more certain phases of her own life. Despite the confidence necessary to leave her problems behind, Costa still finds herself imploring an unnamed person to “feed me your secrets/on letting all your regrets/fall like sand through fingers to the floor.” And it’s admissions like these, despite the growth, despite the maturity, that are the most rattling on the record. It’s moments like these that remind us that even at our most resolute, our most developed, our most accomplished, we will continue to wait for all the answers that continue to elude us.
Though the tunes on the album’s second half don’t stand out as much as the former, they do manage to carry the weight of it without ever feeling suffocating. “Dirt” may even convey some of the most evocative and alarming imagery of the entire record, replete with a “cereal of blood” and dead children, all of which feels like too ponderously heavy-handed at times. The message may of the song feels sincere and even affecting at times, but the grotesque imagery manages to undermine what otherwise is a tender song about the resolve of defeat.
The album’s closing trio all invoke an enlightening natural world previously unexplored on the record. On “Boxes” Costa imagines the calming effect of clamping down on fists of grass just as her frustration and exhaustion manages to get the best of her. Overwrought with the uncertainty of changing homes, lovers, and all the self-doubt that boils to the surface in both instances, this song, in lieu to its late entry on the record, might be the best encapsulation of the modern stagnation outlined throughout the entire record. Our own curiosity and questioning manages to somehow stunt our progress as their increasing numbers never amounts to commensurate answers.
The intrinsic frustration of our inner lives, our relationships, and our desire to grow never really subsides, and neither does Alchemical Rounds’ narrative. Consistently filled to the brim with fear and doubt, it manages to never oppress and overwhelm largely through the conviction of Costa’s vocal performances, unwaveringly on key and brimming with the type of strength and conviction her songs’ characters could certainly use.