Jolie Holland Talks Carla Bozulich’s Boy

I don't want to talk about Carla Bozulich's new album Boy in the context of her career. I'm skeptical that progress is a meaningful concept...

I don’t want to talk about Carla Bozulich’s new album Boy in the context of her career. I’m skeptical that progress is a meaningful concept as applied to art.  I don’t trust the artist themselves — let alone a critic or a fan — to understand the twists and turns that they have taken along the way.  I trust any artist I admire to move by their guts and all their faculties.

But I don’t expect them to be able to write a thesis on it.

Even the ones that are able to discuss their work in a conceptual framework make art that few of us could reasonably line up to that peculiar scaffolding.

I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t listen to what an artist or a critic has to say. I’m just saying it’s all stories. The truth of the Torah is in the telling. And what we say about art and music is fluff compared to the experience of the art. The stories are only as useful as the listener might use them.

This is the first review I’ve ever written, and y’all probably don’t know me, even if you’re one of the few that might know my music.  So before I tell you anything about what I think about Carla Bozulich’s new record, I want to tell you what I listen for: I figure a reading is only meaningful if you understand the calibration of the meter.

I like wildness, power and honesty in music. And I have terrible allergies to meaningless repetition and plastic beauty. I do not like any genre for its own sake, including the fake genre of the “singer-songwriter.” I want music to move me. I like it best when I have absolutely no idea what the artist is doing. I’m drawn to mystery in music. And that’s something that an artist can generate with any tools, even the ones I understand inside and out.

I just read the great noir novel from the ’40s, Nightmare Alley, about the “spook racketeers” who preyed on the wounded stragglers of the Spiritualist movement. So maybe that’s why I feel compelled to tell you my impressions about Carla’s new record in the template of a sham shamanic reading.

As the first song, “Ain’t No Grave,” came on, Boy gave me hallucinations of Nick Cave and Diamanda Galas — those performative, deep dark forces. Amy Annelle, a lesser-known giant, seemed to be hovering near the crystal ball as well. Through the instruments, I beheld the spirit of Harry Partch as filtered through Tom Waits. In Carla’s voice, I felt the presence of Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson. All these reminiscences coalesce and compile until I feel that I can hear Hazel Dickens crying about murders. This is Carla’s accusatory directness. Sometimes her voice is orgasmic, sometimes it’s crackling; I love how she sings, except when she employs a certain choked tonal quality.

There are not a few chants with multiple voices. Her lyrical voice has a magnetic, liturgical, internal quality, as though she were saying these things to herself.

“If you knew what I was thinking, you’d get me drunk and keep on drinking,” she croons demonically, on “Deeper than the Well.”

She often sings like a lucid dreamer, so that we feel she is giving us her truest expression, closest to the font. It’s only when she draws away with that choked tone that I feel she abandons us to artifice. Even though it is all art, all cotton-wool ectoplasm.

Like our dearly departed curmudgeon Lou Reed, I think Mz. Bozulich makes excellent use of painful noise. The guitars bite with a fantastic virility. All percussive elements, from the drums to the scratching guitars to the synthesizers were led with a deft hand. The delays she employs are dry and tasteful.

Just when I began to feel like the album was a little too long, as though it were making too many demands (the loa riding the serviteurs too hard and putting them away wet) the last song, “Number X,” gave me some breathing room — it is nearly an instrumental, except for a definitive incantation in the last few bars:

Don’t throw me out before I finish burning
I’ve settled into a life of learning
Wouldn’t it be fine
If at checkout time
I was doing
What I’m doing right now?

I needed that space to get my feet back on the ground.

Jolie Holland is a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist who lives out of suitcases. She writes non-fiction and music, and she makes a very mean heart tartare. Her band is based out of New York City. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and her website is here.