Heather Woods Broderick: Invitation Review

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Heather Woods Broderick: <i>Invitation</i> Review

Toward the end of “A Stilling Wind,” the opening track on Heather Woods Broderick’s Invitation, a familiar literary figure makes a brief appearance. Broderick sings, amidst an eddy of dramatic cello and violin bowing, “In the cold moon lighting the night-filled bay / I saw the white hare: ‘Oh dear I will be too late.’” In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—and in Jefferson Airplane’s acid-fueled riff on it, “White Rabbit”—the white hare represents a choice between safety and curiosity. To stay above ground and keep living an unexamined life, or to plunge underground toward new depths of spiritual and sensory discovery? Like Alice, like Grace Slick, Broderick says “yes” and follows the white hare, though on Invitation, the choice leads to an exploration of emotional—rather than fantastical or psychedelic—novelty. As the album goes on to prove, curiosity supplies more than a doorway to new experiences. It also builds the foundation for an ethical orientation toward the world, for a truly curious person does the hard work of interrogating the core of her selfhood in order to treat everyone (including herself) better.

As Broderick’s lyrics suggest, this does not seem to have been easy work. But the landscape in which she wrote the album (the Oregon coastline) and her expansive musical imagination (informed by classical training and years collaborating with Sharon Van Etten) have resulted in a remarkably solid listen for such searching material. When the Alice reference creeps in, Broderick is contemplating a fresh start “further north than where I spent the year / At the edge of the cape, feet swinging in the atmosphere,” wondering “have I changed yet” and what it takes to renovate old habits like deferring to others rather than trusting oneself. The assonant paradox “a stilling wind” twists through the song, suggesting how sometimes we need to stir things up, unsettle our lives, in order to inch a bit closer to peace.

Co-producing with D. James Goodwin, Broderick surrounds her voice in orchestral slipstreams that variously include electric and acoustic guitar, percussion, pedal steel, synths, and strings thanks to Portland locals Mirabai Peart and Anna Fritz. A four-woman choir joins Broderick on three tracks, and elsewhere, Broderick’s own voice layers in kaleidoscopic harmonies. Such rich recipes recall fare by Julianna Barwick and Sigur Rós, where the lead voice often functions more like another instrument than like a medium for expressing language. Taking a different approach from those artists, Broderick ensures that her voice articulates clearly in the production, more so than on her previous solo album Glider (2015). This choice does justice to the observant poetry that shimmers through her finest lyrics.

Following scene-setter “A Stilling Wind,” Broderick begins the process of self-examination that shapes the record. “I Try” lists a series of intentions, including “I try to wake up and keep the morning quiet before the world starts creeping in.” Between verses, the title repeats three times, the chorus becoming a mantra that evokes the counterintuitively exhausting process of trying to reach contentment. While many of these intentions are straightforward (“To carefully go and gently leave the hearts of my closest friends”), a more figurative line stands out for how the metaphor tumbles out and crowds the poetic line: “To not be the motionless body of the honeybee but have the stinger in me.” Here, Broderick’s delivery shifts from meditative to self-motivating; she draws out the word “stinger” with the cheeky bite that a more expressive singer like Bjork or Jenny Hval might add. This line exists because Broderick seems aware of her own gentle enchantment with the world, which makes for insightful songwriting but might present challenges in real life. “Nightcrawler” demonstrates this project of balancing self-scrutiny with empathy for other beings. Anticipating the 2017 solar eclipse that passed over Oregon, the singer considers what might happen to the small things living underground: “And whatever’s breathing on the bottom, bubbling through the crud / Might be eased by a dampness, when the moon covers us.”

Other tracks reflect Broderick’s ear for dynamic arrangements. Lead single “Where I Lay” builds from a haunting first verse to anthemic choruses flush with drums and piano recorded with cavernous reverb, as well as synths and a vocal assist from the choir. “Slow Dazzle” and “My Sunny One” sound like intimate conversations between Broderick and her piano, with tasteful strings, harmonies, and percussion entering without overburdening the mix. “White Tail” marshals an up-tempo rock sound to address a feeling of emotional torpor; the lines “a road and its creeping unending / movement, a slide show passing” capture the smudged lens through which someone with depression might view the world. That friction between a downer theme and a pulsing, synth-punctuated beat resembles work by Mitski or Big Thief, where instrumentation doesn’t always underscore lyrical meaning but rather warps or complicates it, asking the listener to think in new ways about the topic at hand.

The album’s one shortcoming lies in Broderick’s vocal restraint. Singing backup for other artists—as she has done for Van Etten, Laura Gibson, and Damien Jurado—requires cultivating a voice that’s steady and reliable but ultimately unobtrusive. The final track, “Invitation,” proves that Broderick has more to offer than understated beauty. Here, the singer responds to a quote from psychologist Thomas Moore that inspired the album’s central theme. “I accept the invitation,” she sings—the invitation “to open yourself to change every step of the way,” as Moore puts it. Above piano chords and a loop of birdsong, Broderick repeats “I accept” a number of times, pushing her voice to a higher range as it strains and almost cracks in a manner that suits the sentiment. The last minute of the album reveals a vocal power that Broderick clearly possesses but does not activate elsewhere. Maybe, in those final, straining grace notes, Broderick has gifted herself another place to start again.