Carla Bozulich’s music revels in awkwardness. It’s always a little too exposed, a little too morbid, a little too inward-directed to embrace right away. Bozulich allows no distance between herself and her audience, hemorrhaging pain and dirt without filter, daring us to keep listening. Since the mid-’90s breakup of her country Gothic rock band the Geraldine Fibbers, Bozulich has channeled that emotional exhibitionism into an increasingly fractured set of side projects. She explored experimental soundscapes with guitarist Nels Cline in Scarnella. She covered Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger in its entirety. She indulged her dirty rock ‘n’ roll side on the as-of-yet unreleased recordings with the Night Porter.
But all of Bozulich’s post-Geraldine Fibbers projects seem like preparation for the music she’s made with members of the Montreal collectives Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion. On Hello, Voyager, her second album recorded with the former’s Efrim Menuck (and first to be credited to Evangelista, which also includes bassist Tara Barnes and Secret Chiefs 3’s Shahzad Ismaily), Bozulich is more than just vulnerable. She’s become a master of her own vulnerability, able to twist her wounded muse into shapes both hideous and beautiful.
As with the Bozulich’s last album under her own name, Evangelista (2006), Hello, Voyager draws the line in the sand immediately, leading off with one of its most difficult tracks. “Winds of Saint Anne” rolls in with harmonium drones and distant guitar feedback and an occasional drumbeat, a desolate dustcloud of an opener. “When the winds blow, there’s no rules,” intones Bozulich. It’s a promise kept throughout Hello, Voyager, which clambers through martial stomps and eerie string parts, wobbly spoken word and ragged punk.
The genre dabbling could feel playful if darkness didn’t shadow every turned corner. “The Frozen Dress” rocks back and forth like a ghost ship full of dead sailors, an experimental track aimed only at finding new ways of expressing dread. The beautiful waltz-time “Paper Kitten Claw” should be a weightless lullaby, but its innocence is stunted by disturbing imagery of “secrets that would never be told.” Any chance of finding joy in the Waitsian blues of “Lucky Lucky Lucky” is killed off by the very first line: “When I was a baby, I was sweet as can be/ I had a good heart, but I had to kill it.”
Hello, Voyager can be uncomfortable to listen to, because it’s rare that an artist exposes any sort of emotion this transparently, let alone the litany of failures and neuroses catalogued on the bulging title track. And yet Bozulich and Evangelista give us more than a chance to rubberneck. Confrontational as Hello, Voyager is, it’s also a carefully constructed work by a group of players that know how to wrench compelling music out of dark places. If it’s not Bozulich’s best work since the Geraldine Fibbers disbanded, it’s at least the most successful at managing her restless need for release.