Ovlov Sells Their Shame

On their latest album, the band turns the personal into the anthemic.

Writing songs about one’s relationship to writing songs is a controversial topic among songwriters. On one hand, writing about writing runs the risk of navel gazing, often exploring a relationship between the artist and their self that isn’t particularly considerate to the listener. Jeffrey Lewis wrote a song about this, the central lyric of which is, “Songs about songwriting suck, so I’m writing a song about songs about songwriting.” On the other hand, when writing is the primary tool one has for self-expression, it almost feels dishonest not to attempt to reckon with it at all through one’s songwriting. I think Joanna Newsom grapples with the question of the effectiveness of writing as a translational tool beautifully: “The signifieds butt heads with the signifiers/and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words/while across the sky sheet the impossible birds/in a steady illiterate movement homewards.” How do we write about the shortcomings of language? How do we write beautifully about how writing has failed us?

One of the central tensions of Ovlov’s TRU revolves around the question of who they are writing for, and why. There’s an inherent mistrust of and a defensive hostility toward the music industry present on the record. There are lyrical fake-outs and idiosyncrasies that threaten to dismount careless listeners, or those seeking a simple narrative. There is the utilization of humor as a buttress against those who might try to over analyze the work.

I want to start by looking at what immediately jumps out as silly on this record, and why I think that’s interesting, and why my thinking that it’s interesting might be exactly what the band doesn’t want me to think. First of all, the record starts off with a reference to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” as if to declare from the get-go that TRU will not be a sentimental record. Additionally, the third track is called “The Best Of You,” a title that has already been claimed by the Foo Fighters, one of the most frequently roasted bands of the last two decades. So why does this record begin in a way that almost begs to not be taken seriously? I believe it answers this question in a way that ultimately, and ironically, positions it as a very serious, very sentimental record.

It would be easy to say that Ovlov is funny because it sometimes feels good to be funny. I think there’s an intentionality here that runs a bit deeper. I think humor is just one tool in a larger set of tools that are used to safeguard what TRU identifies as its stakes: the possibility of making art for oneself. This is a fundamentally romantic idea, and one that rests on the presupposition that you can make art for yourself, that your art is one way before it is shared publicly and another way afterward. This is really complicated territory, but for the sake of thinking about this record the terms might be better defined as music for oneself and music for another.

There are multiple lyrical references to selling oneself that are delivered with equal parts anxiety and defeatism. On the record’s fifth track, “Stick,” Steve Hartlett sings:

feed my fish food
read when it’s rude
and sing while the main style is hot with the teen kyle and ride on the waves of the youth.

And then there’s the last line of the song:

i sing to try and sell my shame.

The interesting tension here exists in the way that Ovlov identifies the act of doing what they love as inextricable from the act of destroying that for themselves. But this song is also interesting in a formal sense. The typical folk songwriting mode uses verses to explore the personal, the specific, and the experiential. Choruses are then used as a way of extrapolating meaning from the personal and demagnifying it as much as possible to the scale of the universal. Much of TRU subverts this form. Here is the first verse of “Stick,” which you can compare with the chorus, which I quoted earlier:

i struggle by your side
insisting you to try
another way to see
blinking eyes swell to the ground
i follow all the ways
your argument displays
shallow in the way
you weaken my selfish shame.

By relegating larger ideas to the verse (shame, struggle, ways of seeing), and smaller details to the chorus (“feed my fish food/read when it’s rude”), Ovlov turns the personal into the anthemic: if you want to sing along, you have to do it on the band’s terms.

This reorganization of the folk songwriting mode is undergirded by a reticence to let the listener, the industry, or whoever else claim ownership over the art. If Ovlov identify the release of TRU into the larger world of music consumption as a moment of loss or loss of control, their attempt to retain that control is written into the form and content of the record. It’s possible to argue that the record is selfish in this way (which rests on the assumption that art ought to prioritize the viewer, and I’m not sure it should) but I think it’s actually asking the listener to be more generous: Can one sell a record about selling one’s shame? Will people buy something that Ovlov won’t let them make their own? In order to hear this record, I think we have to be willing to let ourselves be ourselves, and let Ovlov be Ovlov. We’re challenged to have the record without taking it.

Felix Walworth is a Brooklyn based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. Their songwriting project, called Told Slant, has been described as “very sad” and “like church.”