Elizabeth Moen is not afraid to rip right through you, even if it involves shredding herself in the process. “I’m sick of singing songs about my exes / Should join somebody else’s band / Play songs about their life instead of mine,” she sings on her new album, Wherever You Aren’t. Her songwriting highlights the painful necessity of dissecting your own life for creative realization and then serving that to listeners on a tray, mocking both her own hurt and the industry that got her there. Funnily enough, she does already play in some pretty notable groups—guitar for Kevin Morby’s and Squirrel Flower’s touring bands, to be exact. But this occasion to hear her shine on her own is one on which she proves herself.
Moen’s voice is what separates her from the pack, towering over the listener in an effort to combat the aching vulnerability and heartbreak of her lyrics. Her sound is rolling, the guitar centering her alternative rock born of multiple styles and keeping everything together, with a full-band sound even though the arrangements don’t tend toward complexity. She analyzes life as it happens to her, with all of the immediate surprise, vulnerability and feigned confidence that comes with that. She can keep up the energy on her faster songs (“Synthetic Fabrics”), and is certainly comfortable taking center stage with her voice on slower, more sparse tunes (“Clown Song”). With tones similar to those of Lake Street Dive’s vocalist Rachael Price, Moen commands her listener while balancing a deeply gentle side. She’s a vocal architect, building structures with her voice that you think are safe to hide inside, but that in fact leave you all the more exposed. There is no way to conceal yourself from your reality in her music.
It’s difficult to tell what her own reality is—Moen is talented at straddling the blurred line between heartfelt lyrics and the uncomfortable exposure of her own life. She’s clearly just trying to make sense of it all, too, singing, “I thought my headaches in the morning / Were coming from my bad dreaming / But my lover told me I’ve been grinding my teeth / While I’ve been deep sleeping / Thought my eyes were tired in the afternoon / From the sun beaming / But I stopped crying, well most of the time / And did some real healing.” Instead of being crushed under the weight of her sadness and confusion, however, she is seeking to understand it better, something implied by its presence at the core of her songwriting.
But to call her songwriting “sad” is belittling, as it is belittling whenever you try to place art into just one emotional box. Her songs are very warm, with the guitar and the dampened tone of her voice often softening any sharper messages, as on the heartbreak of “You Know I Know,” about admitting the painful shared realities of a breakup. The bitter laugh of recognition you do at the title of“Ex’s House Party”; watching as she tries to play big emotions cool on “Soft Serve”; the way that she sings about loneliness on “Differently,” making you feel less lonely yourself—all of these put mirrors to different parts of sadness. The collective result is this brassy, slightly disorganized beating heart of an album, one that starts loud and ends with just Moen and her guitar, murmuring secret, unstable harmonies your way.
This is all not to say that the artist doesn’t know how to have a good time. On songs like “Synthetic Fabrics” or “Where’s My Bike,” the guitar parts just feel fun, rolling with a similar intensity to her voice’s. She messes with her words, sometimes treating them as though they were only sounds and reminding the listener of a playful side existing alongside the deeper questioning in her creativity. Then again, she can turn the joke back on you: “Clown Song” makes you all set and ready to laugh, until you realize it might be among the album’s most painful songs. With simple but impactful lyrics like, “The least funny thing is realizing someone / Doesn’t love you on a rainy day,” Moen tries to shrug off the sadnesses of love, but love is the joke that never ends.
The tender sensitivity in Moen’s lyric writing and her voice that takes up physical space are promising building blocks, conveying emotion in a way that makes her own feelings flow in your veins. But the artist still has a way to go in shaping her own musical path. Comparisons to other musicians jump to the tongue too quickly—Susan Tedeschi-esque vocals, the burning of certain Lake Street Dive tracks, or the sharpness of Madison Cunningham in the instrumentation. Moen fills out her sound masterfully, committing to her musical personality and doing it well—but she has not yet quite found a sound that is distinctively her own.
But the conviction with which she plays, the way she uses her lyrics as resonant pieces of herself, makes her upward trajectory undeniable. With lyrics like, “Wherever you are / Wherever you aren’t / That’s okay,” she feels like a friend showing you their poetry—it’s simple and imperfect, but has so much emotional depth because you feel you already know and love this person. It feels easy to share this same emotional base with Moen. Her album is a body, with each song serving as a necessary part. And this body, like so many, is a warm, moving one that expresses and acts out in many different ways, one with room to grow and change, but that’s already pulsing and loving on its own.
Rosa Sofia Kaminski is a Paste Music intern, writer, climber of trees and collector of odd treasures that she quickly loses, and is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at @rosa.sofia.k on Instagram.
Revisit Moen’s 2018 Daytrotter session below.