Katie Malco Reflects Mercifully on the Past

Julien Baker talks the “brutal candor” of Failures.

I met Katie four years ago, almost precisely. We were playing shows together around the United Kingdom. It was the May before the 2016 United States Presidential election, and a month before the Brexit referendum; I had dropped out of college to go on tour, and it was my first time traveling overseas. That season felt like a long inhale, a breath taken tentatively by history before lurching suddenly forward again in an undisclosed direction. During that spring, I was introduced to Katie’s music within small gatherings in places of reverent simplicity, venues that irrespective of their size felt, to freshly-20-year-old me, charged with unrevealed but forthcoming significance. On that brief string of shows, I would hear some of the songs which appear on Failures in a nascent and much sparser form. Katie was performing alone, wielding only an inverted right-hand telecaster, housing each line of lyrics in delicately constructed chords. Notes issued over resigned stone church pews and through the buzzing din of basement bars; thin, invisible waves of crystalline guitar hovered over restlessly clinking glass, coaxing audiences to a hush. 

When I sit down to write about this album, it is summer in 2020. It has been a similarly disquieting spring: a presidential term already characterized by injustice punctuated with atrocity, a global crisis without precedent. Navigating the world as I do now, with a perpetual trepidation, it is difficult not to hear these songs through the filter of hindsight, envying the resilience of a younger me that rushed headlong into the future with fascinated curiosity and resolve. This record comes to me refracted through the hard edges of my memory, bouncing off into tangents, rendering memories so viscerally human that they locate their analogs in my own life instantly, effortlessly. That is what struck me about Katie’s music initially, how easily I could graft these images into my own experience. It is what makes this record touching to me still — not that I am able to recall a time when I felt understood by these songs, but that when I listen to them now, I feel a renewal of understanding embodied in someone who is herself in the middle of balancing a ledger of pain incurred and hurt inflicted, discerning what value, if any, can be gleaned from each.

“Animal,” the album’s opening track, plunges the listener directly into this headspace. Faltering piano dissipates and is interrupted by the shrill grit of a guitar just dissonant enough to conjure an unnameable discomfort. We see a train passenger drifting in and out of lucidness, rushing along a track in the wrong direction, hurried along by a steady but restless percussion. Malco’s pure bright falsetto weaves itself between drums and distortion, faintly at first, gathering resolve with each line before erupting into the chorus. For a moment before the chorus’s gratifying culmination, the guitars drop out briefly, making space for a cutting indictment to be heard: “I am not an animal; I won’t die here for you.” It is a reproach, a warning against condescension disguised as goodwill. These are sentiments I have felt, conversations I have had in my own head, ruthless rehashings of old conversations and resolutions for future ones. The details are different, but they reference the same converse feelings that emerge when I go traipsing through the annals of the mind: sometimes a self-aware nostalgia, others an unmitigated bitterness. 

Even among the most minimal instrumentation, the rawness and poignancy of Malco’s music is preserved. The intensity of fast-tempo tracks like “Animal” and “Creatures” can still be felt in songs like “Peckham,” which while consisting only of piano and vocals, expands from a quiet, murmuring introspection. The ethos of this album seems to carry beyond lyrical content into its very sonic quality; in the elastic tension of “September”’s semi-fluid meter, as in “The First Snow” as it builds from hushed guitar and keys into an explosive if melancholic anthem, each song’s dynamic composition embodies the volatility of thought and memory, framing the stories they relate elegantly with what is divulged and withheld, what is shouted, what is spoken softly. 

Listening to this record is not unlike the experience of remembering itself: an achronological procession through memories, some banished, abandoned, or avoided, each reluctantly returned to for examination. There are blurred bursts of laughter inside a stuffy, flustered warmth of a dive, the sterile silence of the motorway on a pre-dawn drive to the coast, the accumulated debris of empties and litter left by a gathering that in retrospect feels no less isolating than the present. Verses written in a fluid tense shuttle back and forth between the vantages of former-self and current-observer, attempting to construct a composite, a way to hold both in the same line of sight. Both narratives are intertwined, a world experienced and a world examined, re-examined, and re-examined, ad nauseam, the former always trying to reconcile itself with the latter. 

It is a realization as predictable as it is inevitable to revisit the past and find it has taken on a new, often unfavorable quality in the changed light of the present. From that realization almost always follows pain that if allowed, will calcify into an unmovable bitterness. And while these songs describe an honest confrontation of regret and resentment, it would be reductive to think of them as a testament to some necessary disillusionment. They are rather an appraisal of revelry and desperation that in retrospect can be pitied, mourned, and pardoned at once. This ability to reflect mercifully on the past is not easily won, it is the product of a slow and arduous undertaking, the kind which pervades even the minutiae of daily existence, revealing itself in moments of solitude. 

This record is a rare depth of exploration, a detailed report from an ongoing excavation site of grief. We are invited beyond an observance of the aftermath into the process of unpacking, watching as our speaker exhumes artifacts and pieces together their shards, plotting a path from near-history to now. For all its brutal candor, Failures is a record that brings me solace. The speaker I hear in this album is one who — albeit resigned to tossing restlessly in bedsheets as the blind-chopped spill of car headlights on the bedroom wall contracts and expands, who is kept awake by the gnawing of thought — is never quite ready to concede to defeat.

Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker released her sophomore record, Turn Out The Lights, via Matador Records in 2017. Follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here.

(photo credit: Nolan Knight)