Review Summary: A woman and her long-lost veteran husband lay the groundwork for this beautiful piece of art.
Not many of us know anything about Sarah Kirkland Snider. Hell, I did not even know she existed until news about this release came to the blogosphere. Turns out she’s a young composer from New Jersey, who got degrees from Yale and Wesleyan University. She has been heralded by the likes of Time Out New York and NPR, and has quietly been gaining steam throughout the buildup to this release. Penelope
is her debut full-length album, and it is a beguiling piece of musical art. Snider composed the score, with a chamber orchestra by the name of Signal (under conduction of Brad Lubman) play out her weighty musical scripts. The vocals are provided by the ever-impressive Shara Worden, the trained opera vocalist from indie-rock band My Brightest Diamond, also known for their intense drama.
This trio of musical forces would not be complete without the words to this indelible set of songs. The texts are provided by a playwright named Ellen McLaughlin, and her story is inspired heavily by Homer’s Odyssey
. According to the press release, the narrative is as follows:
“A woman’s husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of an unnamed war, he doesn’t know who he is and she doesn’t know who he’s become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him the Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband’s memory and the terror and trauma of war.”
If it sounds like heavy stuff, that’s because it is. Originally a music-theater drama by Snider and McLaughlin, Penelope
was reconstructed as a song cycle, adding in the orchestration of Signal and the vocals of Shara Worden. The whole thing begins with one of its best numbers, the introductory “The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved.” With a loping, current-like violin line and slowly encroaching strings and percussion, the song is a wonderful lift-off for the rest of the album. Continuing with “This is What You’re Like,” where Penelope attempts to restore her amnesiac husband’s memory, the album makes clear its deft use of deep chamber strings and majestic percussion, mixing in even a few subtle electronics.
Shara Worden is most likely the only person in this project you have ever heard of, and she does not disappoint here. Her voice is eerily beautiful, and she gives Penelope a strong, stentorian, elegant shape. The creepy, slow dirge of “The Lotus Eaters” and the half a’capella “Dead Friend” are both fantastic showcases for her dramatic chops, which are capable of sounding both impossibly stoic and crumblingly emotional, often at the same time. Even on songs where Worden does not sing, such as the instrumentals “The Honeyed Fruit,” “I Died of Waiting,” and “And Then You Shall Be Lost Indeed,” the strings add such beautiful warmth that is the perfect foil to her loving chill, whilst also keeping the dramatic story going.
This is an album filled to the brim with emotion, feeling, passion, beauty, longing, forgetting, and remembering. It is all about loss and return, and how those things can often eclipse each other to seem all too similar. With the help of all involved (which includes the poetry of Ellen McLaughlin), it is easy to look over Sarah Kirkland Snider’s hand in this, but it is also simultaneously impossible. Without her incredible vision and her invariably strong compositions, none of this would be possible. And when “As He Looks Out to Sea” closes out, we are reminded of this: after Worden gives up the microphone, the slight electronics dwindle down, the xylophones flicker off, and the strings, as if embodying both Penelope and her husband himself, drift back like the tide, to the ocean from whence they came.
Listen to "This is What You're Like" and watch the video for "The Lotus Eaters" here: http://penelope-music.com/#/audiovideo