“I think she’s cooler than me….” In her song, ‘Fucking’ Whitney Ballen toys with more than one line of self-deprecating perception. Here and through the rest of her debut album, You’re a Shooting Star, I’m a sinking Ship, we’re taken on an excursion of alternating currents. There’s nothing more ridiculous than the pursuit of being cool. Yet, there’s nothing more urgent than the acceptance of a loved one. What initially appears as the insecure pursuit of love and acceptance – as Ballen shares a dream of her lover fucking a cooler girl, with better hair – evolves into an inquiry into authenticity. How do we arrive at that meaningful dialog? How do we develop self-love that somehow relates to the outer atmosphere?
This album speaks with urgency on issues encountered by a young soul at a certain time in life. Having always been aware of the filters through which she experienced life, Ballen has now passed into a higher level of consciousness in regard to what it all means. Yes, questions are leveled, and confusion unfolds across this sequence – but in the pursuit of meaning a bright, shiny grain of self worth is arrived at.
A strength of this sequence is in Ballen’s ability to preserve the fragility of the initial expression. So often we hear singers force their larynx into a facsimile of emotion. It’s no easy task, relaying intention through the contrivance of take-fifteen in the vocal booth. However, Ballen, whether she’s speaking, whispering, or singing, sustains a genuine, raw quality that pours reality into every crack. The honesty of performance is never in doubt. She sings of drinking coffee, she confesses disquieting levels of anxiety, she speaks directly to the object of affection, all with a sense of improvised need. Of course there’s editing here – we never fall into the drivel of unadulterated confession – but the lack of artifice in her art distinguishes Ballen’s efforts.
Production here is set to preserve the simplicity of compositions. Nothing is overdressed. During the most intimate lyrical moments instruments are stripped back. There’s enough going on with the emotional content to not cluster with busy sounds. Guitars work like guitars. Drums work like drums. Little keyboards offer occasional texture, and the kind of scale that may be intimate or grand – depending on the mood. Instrumentally this is an old-fashioned indie-folk-rock album. And yet, it’s simply not one that belongs in the stack with all the others. Stripped of gimick the form relays the intention of the content – let’s get real.
A track like ‘Black Cloud’ shows the dark energies that Ballen is capable of summoning. We pass from the intimate, to the universal weather front with incredible fluidity. In sequence ‘Nothing’ brings the frame back to an intimate rage where the narrator claims she has nothing to say – scrambling for definition. “These are all the things I can’t say to you…” followed by a beautiful cacophony of cascading instruments. A reedy saxophone and distorted guitars, pretty much sums up the tide of emotions.
Through her assessment of subjects Ballen realizes what we all need to realize. What people show the world, especially via social media, are curated aspects of themselves. Real encounters carry with them a kind of aroma, a kind of nervousness that is never evidenced online, or in our ‘profiles’. Measuring herself against the inauthentic projections of ‘shooting stars’, of course leads Ballen to address her own shortfall, before rising above the process. What distinguishes Ballen’s perspective is her being so on the level. She may as well be saying ‘I’m only capable of imagining what you’re thinking – I may be wrong. We’re all equally accountable for the mess.” And, aside from what the album title may lead you to believe, she never elevates herself, nor does she indulge self-pity. She simply preserves integrity.
The raw, fleshed-out emotion is sometimes hard to be an audience to. Ballen brings herself forward to discuss the shared elements of modern psychosis, and it’s not always easy to acknowledge ‘yes – that is particularly painful, yes – that is particularly unpleasant’. But in exposing her own anxieties she also reveals her real strengths, and in achieving that she shows all of our real strengths. We are human beings alive on a fucked-up planet. The opportunity for beauty, the possibility for change, and a connection between isolated experiences is all around us.
On You’re a Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship, Whitney Ballen details the relationship between the ups and the downs, she navigates through the untruth of interpersonal projections, and the beauty of the natural world. In doing so she arrives at an authentic experience, and one of the best debut albums we’ve heard in a long time.
HURRY – LISTEN AND BUY – WHITNEY BALLEN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SOPHIA LEE