Willie Reviews Mariee Sioux’s “Grief in Exile”

Willie Reviews Mariee Sioux’s “Grief in Exile”

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Singer-songwriter Mariee Sioux is back with a new collection of living, breathing songs. Grief in Exile displaces the idea of grief, leaving a collection of natural metaphors, approximating and comparing all the way to the center of the feeling. These songs are for the time before, during, and after a great storm. RPM’s review:

Acoustic music and what we call “the natural world” (i.e. not us) are tightly coupled. Both stake a claim to the sincerity of the open space out there. Look at it, and you’ll find both a horse running through the grass and a sensitive songwriter letting a harmonic ring from their guitar. They can’t ask the animals how they feel, but acoustic musicians enjoy their closeness to wildlife. Though we humans invented the idea of a natural world separate from our own, acoustic musicians provide a most compelling portrait of it: rough around the edges, but informed by our deepest, most fragile thoughts. Singer-songwriter Mariee Sioux has submerged herself in the most natural of all acoustic music for years now. Some of her previous albums, like Faces in the Rocks and Gift for the End, introduced a reflective persona that takes in all sensory material and spins webs of living imagery. On Grief in Exile, her first album in seven years, she advances the narrative of the natural world by immersing herself in it almost exclusively while fixating on a personal mourning. All things in nature feel and react to her pain, amplifying and extending it across the sky.

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Like a grouse on its lek staving off other encroaching birds, Sioux’s sung poetry has a vocabulary that writes humans out of the world. It’s only after listening through the album that you realize her language is out of time and place, and that she offers no clues. Maybe we know ourselves well enough already and need hear no more of it. Maybe our affairs are too small for song, and they don’t measure up to the remainder of language. In any case, Grief in Exile sees animals do non-animal things as a substitute for our emotions, but they are the only substitute. “Goose Song” is a song that knows itself very well. In the place of a human it puts a goose. As a one-for-one exchange, the goose is surprising. Though the goose is doing its best to fill the emotional space of one who has gone, the song gives us every indication that it is still a goose. From the bluntness of the title and the honking sound of the word “goose” to the line “finest gander I have known,” the imagery of a big bird won’t slip from your mind. The crushingly sad reality of the human who has gone is enhanced by the goose’s inadequacies. However, by displacing the song’s subject, it rearranges the imagery of grief and presents it in a new form.

The album’s title emotion is constantly being reframed. “Behind the Veil” announces itself in the first person (“Don’t know how to love my way through the fall”), but becomes exponentially more unfamiliar in the last lines of the chorus. She sings “Don’t want to spit out your own tail / The vine flowers around endless scales.” In sequence, these lines knock away quite a bit of causality. If you want to understand the particular kind of grief on the album, you must approach it with a new set of ideas.

Like the confluence of two long rivers, Sioux merges the dual themes of a personal apocalypse and a natural apocalypse. The end of times is everywhere, and the grief and death that sparks much of her writing is mirrored in the vast and seemingly unconquerable domain of the plains and the sky. On the album cover, she stands against a grey and threatening sky, surrounded by vast plains in subdued colors. She is blown by the wind in the moment before a great storm, but appears at ease. Her image is magnified by the surroundings, and her being there gives the storm a personality. The opening song, “Black Snakes,” has a neofolk type dread, but I would hesitate to say it conveys the same emotion. Instead of a historical, pagan mood, “Black Snakes” demonstrates drastic actions. “We’ll split the light in two,” Sioux promises, saying, “Medusa’s head of black snakes tears through the loss and what remains.” Her words cover a peculiar landscape that jumps all over time, but retains a sense that things are not as they used to be. “Baby Wave” describes the moment all nature goes silent as a result of a great grief. Both themes collapse into one at the peak of this interaction. Nature makes grief as great and powerful in its imagery as it is in the head of the speaker.

Mariee Sioux, photo from Night Bloom Records

Like a barnacle on the side of a whale, Sioux’s voice and guitar are at odds, not enough to harm one another, but enough to roughen the overall sound. Her shivering voice is often double-tracked, echoed, and made in many ways to come from all directions. It’s a pure tone that holds up by itself and challenges all other instrumentation. The guitar sound, however, is of an opposite temperament. It’s unmodified and raw, and beyond that, her picking style is work intensive. You can hear all the movement in the picking hand on songs like “Grief in Exile.” It’s almost like her voice is catching up with the guitar. The two rub against each other, not swinging toward complete despair or complete elegance. This is the foundation the album is built on because it is not a sad album or a serene album. Like the quiet before or after a storm, all peace is cyclical and nothing is final. Like a rabbit munching on grass, it’s never over. The most natural thing about grief seems to be its persistence against all odds.

Score: A deer looking right through you.

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