All too often, you’re checking out some list of upcoming albums and see a familiar name. Another band leader dropping a solo release. And the typical result? A couple of solid tracks that would’ve been improved by the band’s contributions and a mess of unmemorable b-sides tossed to the wind for seemingly no reason. A song or two of fodder for some band retrospective mix in thirty years.
The cynicism ends here.
Erika Wennerstrom, the heart of Cincinnati band Heartless Bastards, has changed the game with her new solo effort. The difference can be seen immediately with the album’s title: Sweet Unknown, a phrase elegantly lifted from The Bastards’ own “Could Be So Happy” off their breakthrough album The Mountain. If you know the song, those two words instantly kick off a melody in your mind. And it’s no mistake. “Could Be So Happy” serves as the perfect spiritual prologue to the journey Erika Wennerstrom takes us on with her inspiring conceptual new creation. This isn’t an act of distancing herself from her earlier music, the way so many solo albums are; it’s a culmination. It all makes me feel like writing a damned book report.
“I could be so happy / if I just quit being sad,” she intoned on that song from almost ten years ago. “I’m goin’ out into the sweet unknown.” Sweet Unknown itself began with the kind of real life story that makes music writers lose their minds. Erika Wennerstrom, burnt out on gigging, went off into the Amazon jungle, took an ayahuasca trip, and came back with a torch burning in her soul. This album is that light.
From the opening guitar work on “Twisted Highway”, where the tone sounds like a slow-motion vision of an enormous rock scraping the flint of the sky and setting it on fire, it’s clear that the cosmos is opening in front of us. Wennerstrom’s music has always been Big Sky rock, the kind of stuff that sounds like it was swept in off the plains, but Sweet Unknown hits new heights; maybe the only venue that could contain a live performance of it is the Red Rocks, out in the desert where the sound only has the stars to bounce off.
It could’ve all turned into a sing-along self-help book. Lyrics to songs like “Letting Go” and “Be Good to Yourself” are truly reflections of their simple titles. “Like a Bird” invites us to “Open up and let good things come.” In fact, aside from the momentary darkness of “Staring Out the Window” which edges across the horizon like the memory of a storm, the album is almost entirely uplift, connected like a concept album in its theme of releasing the past and freeing the soul from its baggage. But when it comes with refrains like “I’m gonna take a little time / I’m gonna take it easy” as in the ten minute opus “Good to Be Alone”, not just any vocalist could stir your soul with the transcendent, hallucinogenic experiences of their own.
The centerpiece and keystone of it all is Wennerstrom’s voice, that always well-worn and warm instrument. But with the sound of it on this record, it seems like the waves of projectile vomiting from that ayahuasca trip might’ve swept out any hesitations and catches that you’d hear on older albums, opening it up for widescreen crescendos and epiphanies. Her voice soars anthemically, coated in reverb and given more power and humanity with backing vocals that The Bastards’ tunes rarely allowed for. Toward the end of most of the songs, words are abandoned altogether as her pipes are freed from the shackles of literal meaning and soar off into pure feeling. After all, freedom and feeling are at the core of this album’s message.
It’s a treat to hear Erika Wennerstrom’s voice in this more low-key setting, without the balls-out rockers that pepper her main gig’s typical releases. On the quieter numbers, you can begin to hear her vocals as the plains-roving version of the shadowy, corner-of-the-club delivery of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand. It recontextualizes a voice that’s always seemed comfortable powering through a CCR song. It makes her voice, like her inner emotional being at the end of this journey, into something entirely new.
“Feels like I’ve only just begun on this long trip I’ve been on…” she sings on album-closer “Gravity”. Tipping into her fourth decade of life, Wennerstrom has bottled up an album that makes it nearly impossible for a listener to disagree.
All Of Them
David C. Casey