In the early days of the United States’ efforts to stave off COVID-19, the concept of quarantine was as novel as the virus itself. Folks used the opportunity to take up new hobbies like baking bread and hosting Zoom happy hours. There was an air of “We’re all in this together,” even if we were confined to our respective homes. That is, until the government all but gave up trying to stem the spread of the virus, leaving us to our own devices and the disease to continually dish out irreparable damage to families and communities.
Almost a year after those initial lockdowns, there’s finally a show of hope in the form of vaccines, but this crisis isn’t yet in our rearview. At least in the meantime we’re finally starting to see the light of creativity that resulted from those months of isolation. Sean Scolnick, aka Langhorne Slim, had an especially fraught relationship with the excessive alone time brought on by social distancing. Having struggled with addiction in the past (but now sober), Slim felt added discomfort without the distractions of the Before Times: touring, the physical support of family and friends, the busyness of normal life. But as he described in a short film for mental health collective Sound Mind, the newfound downtime also brought forth a welcome creative surge after more than a year of writer’s block.
After accepting a friend’s challenge to fulfill a daily writing exercise, Slim finished more than 20 songs between March and May 2020, which eventually became the bones of Strawberry Mansion, the indie-folk veteran’s hopeful seventh studio album, per the press materials for the new release. Slim—beloved by Americana listeners for his frank, rugged folk songs—delivers perhaps his most serious work yet on Mansion. Yet he packages those heavy themes of mental health, addiction, loneliness and spirituality into a lively collection of music that feels especially suited to these strange times.
“Panic Attack” might be the best tune on the record, and it’s certainly the thesis. A desperado country jam that just so happens to be about a meltdown, the song begins with a frantic plea: “I called a healthcare professional / Wanna speak to someone confidentially / Don’t know just how I’m feelin’ / But I’m feelin’ feelings exponentially.” That overwhelming sensation of emotions crashing down is a familiar one, particularly when it feels like the walls are closing in, too. It’s not rare to hear musicians singing about their mental health, but “Panic Attack” is a brighter, more forthright take on anxiety in song form.
“Lonesome Times” is just as on-the-nose. It tracks those days of solitude that defined the early stages of the pandemic and, for many, still do, but it could also refer to a more encompassing type of loneliness: a lonely season after a breakup or loss. Slim gathers up all those mismatched emotions we’ve been dealing with over the last year and ties them up in a funky bouquet.
After hearing Mansion, it comes as no surprise that Slim is something of an Instagram prophet. Before Strawberry Mansion was an album, it was a string of unfinished songs filmed and released on Instagram throughout last year. Slim still hops on Instagram Live a few times a week to come face-to-face with listeners, and, in a way, the sessions feel like little private confessions. That spiritual edge carries over to the finished product on songs like “House On Fire,” which points out the indiscretions that exist in the now all-too-rampant social media practice of moral policing, without feeling too preachy. His spirituality is even more apparent on “Morning Prayer,” in which he outwardly prays for friends and family members and asks for strength.
The coffee hour sermons continue on “No Right Way,” a steady roots song about how we’re all figuring it out, and “Something Higher,” which wisely posits that “Life is what we make of all that has gone wrong.” There’s no shortage of humor here, either, like when Slim sings, “The world looks dark when your head’s shoved in your ass” on “Blood on Yer Lips.” He has a point.
Strawberry Mansion, named for a neighborhood in Philadelphia where both of Slim’s grandfathers grew up, is a little shaggy around the edges, and probably could’ve done with a four-song trim. But it offers a clear look at one songwriter’s experiences during a monumental cultural moment and frames them within his own personal struggles. If a lyricist’s foremost job is to speak the truth—even the ugly, sometimes conflicting truth of hunkering down during a pandemic—then you’ll find no falsehoods here.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.