The mind can be a self-destructive wasteland. Sarah Cripps learned that hard truth after the release of her debut album, 2013’s Change. “I was struggling with the perception of who I thought I was supposed to be and who I honestly am. It left me feeling pretty dark at times,” she says, regarding her mental state as a shapeshifting force, unhindered by the physical world. As the follow-up, a self-titled disc, began to take shape, she, too, underwent a vast transformation. “It was making this record that helped me decide I would embrace the darkness and the weirdness, and I pulled myself out of the perfect box I thought I had to fit into,” she explains ⎯⎯ and through her dissection of maddening emotions, from sorrow and pity to regret, she maps out her entire life.
“I found a way to create my own narrative and not subscribe to the one that is often forced on young women,” she adds of the album, her first in five years and one which clings to bare-boned ethos of roots and Americana music. Cripps is a creature of habit, borrowing symbols of her past with subtle inflections and a voice so magnificently cloaked in mystery. She remains tight-lipped about what traumatic and wounding experiences tore her apart, but that pain is drawn ferociously in the sand ⎯⎯ winding through songs like “Leave Behind,” the scorching opener which handles a relationship’s decay with bitter delicacy, “Caroline” (a fuzzy-headed, saloon duster in which she weeps over Caroline’s “bleeding secrets of the deepest darkest kind,” with lacy malice) and “Come Back to Life,” fraught with gut-wrenching loneliness at first and then morphing into a glistening, boot-scoot boogey (“Is there enough time to make it right?” she probes through the choking dust). Cripps’ heart breaks right before your eyes, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
With “Heat,” a spooky, guitar-plucked incantation, she basks in the misery, keeping “score” with a former lover, who does his worst to crush her spirit. “Oh, my eyes follow you around / And my feet never touch the ground,” she curls her voice. “Going Under” picks up the baton, distorting her pleas to not fall asunder again. Grunge-rock waves crash over the arrangement, and she cries, “Pretend that I don’t feel you and pray that you don’t win…” It is her musical daring that is most fascinating here, stretching her chops in darker and more ambitious territory.
Armed with producer Dean Drouillard (Run with the Kittens, Emma Cook, Field Assembly), Cripps demolishes expectations and draws upon an enchantment with “classic, cult horror,” needling the arrangements with a furious tension, which often bends, breaks, snaps and bleeds out. Her willingness to be so colossally vulnerable forces “the listener to embrace the beauty that can come from” such enterprising overexposure. On “Charcoal Heart,” she finally acknowledges the cross she bears, attesting brutally, “You wont ever see me crawling back to chapel grounds / Bury it deep, tear it apart, you’ll never clean this charcoal heart.”
Not only is it “a real turning point in the story of this album,” as she remembers, but it twists the sonic quirks in a splintered direction. The 1-2 savage punch of “Robbery” (“You’re a bag of bones / I’ll be your flesh / Don’t tempt me now / I’ll rip right through your chest,” she promises, a vehement command) and the bloody, foot-stomping “Keep This Up” (“Hang the rope and pull line / No one will ignite this fire,” Cripps sings, weary-eyed and resigned to her brandished fate) is a marvelous study into hitting rock bottom and the disastrous aftermath. “Save Me” is a soft, forlorn western-style ballad depicting the tenuous strands of her psyche, as she scuffles with the past and attempts to reclaim self-worth. “The pain’s gonna trickle down / It’s always raining now, and I’ve been swimming like you didn’t / But sometime, my whole world goes black / And baby, I don’t need you back,” she sings, situating the final number, “Bones,” as a parting farewell to the blackness, decorated with a gentle sliver of hope. “I was always standing still, you pulled me out from this sleeping pill,” she sings.
Through confronting her demons, and sharpening her penmanship on rock-doused Americana along the way, Cripps processes that pain and finally cuts the shackles that have weighed her down for years. It is 10 tracks of blistered confessionals, and while rooted in organic, wistful storytelling, she exudes a bewitching charm and fearlessness.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
Photo Credit: Jen Squires