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What Makes A Good "Confessional" Album?

Coffee shop troubadours, you have much to learn from Perfume Genius and Sharon Van Etten

Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten: What Makes A Good "Confessional" Album?

As someone who was a frustrated, gloomy 13-year-old girl when Tidal came out, I’d put myself well within the 98th percentile of people who are thrilled about Fiona Apple’s comeback. Her maturing voice, increased confidence and the promise of a whole new batch of expertly written songs notwithstanding, one of the best parts about Apple making music again is seeing and hearing and reading about everyone getting excited about her. To me, Apple represents the vanguard of late '90s smart solipsism. Although her music was intensely personal and thoroughly interior, she still managed to make her songs bridge the empathy chasm from “this is my life; these are my feelings” to “that’s completely unique to your life, but sometimes I feel like this, too.” That’s both hard to do – and nice to hear, especially now.

At this point in cultural history, there’s something especially refreshing about artists who are willing to put aside postmodern evasiveness and Millennial disillusionment in favor of crafting a considered, complete emotional response that doesn’t rely on external reference points as a means of self-expression. And quite honestly, an album can sometimes be easier to process when it’s restricted to one person’s story. Plus, the album is a natural format for exploring many different angles of one particular issue.

Even so, it’s admittedly kind of bizarre that these intensely personal, confessional albums would remain so affecting when we have so many technological platforms that enable and encourage over-sharing. There are so many ways to get a sense of how anyone and everyone’s feeling at any given moment, you’d think we’d be completely numb to hearing someone earnestly sing their metaphor-cloaked emotions in your ear. But it’s not as if we didn’t share anything before the internet existed, and furthermore, we were more inclined to paint more complete, evocative pictures of our emotional states.

So, cultural and technological rationale aside, how do you make a “confessional” album that doesn’t come across as either too personal to be of any real interest to anyone other than yourself, or just maudlin as fuck? This year, both Sharon Van Etten and Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) have cracked the code with gusto, making heart-on-the-sleeve albums about awful relationships – albums that either completely bypass the awful trappings of the confessional album, or turn those characteristics on their ears, using them to their advantage, endearing them to the listener and make them exemplary albums within the “confessional” canon.

Owning the “Confessional Albums Are for Maudlin Ladies” Trope
Music writers are a somewhat-attuned to feminism bunch, but as it’s a long-standing boys’ club, a lot of unintentional misogyny makes it through. Albums by women that deal with “emotions” get lumped under the “confessional” album banner, with all the maudlin, over-sharing associations that brings. And as a femme gay man, Hadreas isn’t immune to this treatment, either.

Too often, we expect the art women create to bare their souls to us, an offering that lets us analyze their lives and pass judgment on their choices. Of course, not every song written by a woman or a gay man fits this emotionally-charged bill, but when they do, there’s a backlog of eye-rolling associations that come with the choice: maudlin, oversharing, reminiscent of high school poetry, etc. And although you could make a case that both Put Your Back N 2 It and Tramp fit those negative descriptions, both albums sort of “own it,” in the same way you might reclaim a derogatory term. They’re hyper-emotional, but in thoughtful, considered ways, each exploring multiple angles and facets of one painful situation. They wield even femininity’s most deleterious stereotypes expertly, accurately presenting them as the cause of – and solution to – problems. And they do it succinctly. “Let me be the one to turn you on/ There is love with no hiding,” says Hadreas on N 2 It’s title track; Van Etten muses “It’s not because I always give up/ It might be because I always give out.”

Care and Attention to the Music Itself
We’ve nurtured and encouraged the notion that singer-songwriter/confessional albums should feature sparse accompaniment, the better to not steal focus away from the lyrics themselves. It’s an approach that makes sense, but it’s hard to argue that dynamic instrumentation and arrangement makes for a more interesting listen, lending each song emotional resonance unique to its subject matter.

This is an especially relevant point for N 2 It and Tramp. Hadreas’ debut Learning was whispery and lo-fi, and while the bedroom, dashed-off aesthetic gets preserved on N 2 It, the sound’s overall more expansive and different from song to song. Van Etten’s Epic and, especially, Because I Was In Love were hushed, a little tentative; Tramp finds her getting lush, loud, mad – and dynamic. Though both about the same toxic dude, Van Etten’s “Serpents” and “Leonard” are two completely different ways of looking at the relationship, the former waffling between accusatory stance and wishing for a solution, the latter a big ol’ ball of did-I-make-the-right-decision confusion. Were they both simply accompanied by acoustic guitar and light percussion, the subtle differences in mood and tone might not shine through with as much clarity. Instead, Van Etten and Aaron Dessner’s sweeping and smart production choices turn “Serpents” into a dissonant maelstrom and “Leonard” into a delicate and fickle waltz.

Lyrics Strike A Kind-Of Perfect Balance Between Personal and General
Good writers – hell, good artists in any medium – know how to make something personally universal and relatable. Even though (and sometimes because) everyone’s dealt with a pretty similar backlog of life experiences – bad breakups, unfulfilling jobs, etc. – it’s hard to push the empathy buttons and get someone to care as much about your own experience as much as you do. And that’s why it’s vital to strike a careful balance in song lyrics, to make them personal without getting too personal.

Both Hadreas’ and Van Etten’s lyrics are sparse, suggestive of a situation without offering alienating, you-had-to-be-there-and/or-be-me amounts of detail. On the doo-wop power ballad “Hood,” Hadreas takes a cue from the Brill Building and churns out a heartfelt song written in the general language of “baby” and “I’ve been bad but you don’t know it,” a situation that’s personal and emotionally charged but familiar to all – and most importantly, written in very general terms. That’s the entire formula to writing a good pop song – but it’s hard to do, right? Especially if part of the process involves trying to exorcise your emotional demons.

For Example, Cloaking Catharsis in Figurative Language…
In the grand tradition of Leonard Cohen repeatedly writing love songs as though he’d just slammed his dick in the Old Testament, one of the best ways to give your personal experiences life beyond your own little drama bubble is to place them in a cultural context – or at the very least, a metaphor with personal resonance. Hadreas is especially accomplished at this kind of writing; a wide variety of interviews and reviews scrape at the edges of a rough past – drug abuse, sexual abuse, grappling with thoughts of suicide, being desperate for acceptance. Here it works twofold – a way to make the situation more relatable, a way to offer some distance between himself and a painful past, making it easier to think and talk about.

…Without Going Overboard
It says a lot that two albums that are basically coping mechanisms/catharsis and deal with such personal, painful situations can be so listenable and not in the least cringe-worthy. Metaphors and similes are such crutches for writers (especially songwriters), and both Van Etten and Hadreas have a delicate touch with this trick, using figurative language sparingly and not turning the whole affair into someone’s never-removed Xanga page. On “We Are Fine,” Van Etten begs, “Tell me not to trip or to lose sight/ You are walking in my dotted line,” a well-chosen metaphor that cleverly invokes the too-familiar “this relationship is on faltering ground” terms.

Hadreas’ “Dark Parts” opens with the line “The hands of God are bigger than Grandpa’s eyes/ But still he broke the elastic on your waist/ But he’ll never break you, baby.” It’s not figurative language for the sake of figurative language. It’s figurative language that opens a whole world and deals with abuse delicately and indirectly, the way victims of abuse do.

***

At its most basic level, a “confessional” album is just owning and channeling your own voice instead of putting yourself into others’ shoes and exploring different perspectives. Because it’s not empathetic, it’s easier to dismiss it as a more juvenile form of songwriting, but who’s to say it’s not just as challenging to write something that’s completely bound up in your own life and still get someone else to care about it?

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Sharon Van Etten

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