“…Don’t Shy Away is an invitation. It honors the sacred space of uncertainty, acknowledging lingering darkness while trusting in the possibility that brighter, more brilliant worlds lie within reach.” — Allison Hussey, Pitchfork

If you’ve ever walked alongside someone suffering from terminal cancer, and struggled to make meaning as the disease advanced, you have some sense of what the last five years have often felt like for me and for many other Americans. As toxic evils have erupted from subterranean reservoirs and spread in broad daylight — Christian Nationalism and white supremacy, for starters — corrupting and consuming so much that was vital and beautiful and life-giving, and as a pandemic has swept around the world like an Old Testament plague… times have become hard for just about everyone.

And times have become difficult in very particular ways for artists. Not worse, mind you — I don’t mean to compare their challenges to those suffering direct hostility or ventilator-deathbed crises. I just mean that I’m seeing so many creative visionaries struggle to find their muses, as if they’ve been separated by social distancing. Creativity flourishes when artists can lose themselves in unselfconscious imagining. And dark times unsettle us, upset us, and make possibilities seem dim and distant. It’s difficult to play. It’s difficult to experiment, take risks, ask “What if?” — especially when you checking the skies, checking the headlines, checking your pulse. These days, a simple glance at my phone can drive me from surges of fear to feelings of helplessness, from helplessness to rage, from rage to grief, and, on a good day, from grief to prayers of lament and appeals for help… where I should have started in the first place.

As a writer, I should know that the dark times, though they inspire no feelings of gratitude, can become material. These days and nights can be the hard winters that prepare us to bloom in some future season. And those who have been driven underground, or who have withdrawn into themselves, might redeem the time by seek veins of gold there. As Sam Phillips sang, “When you’re down / … you find out what’s down there.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy — especially in the thick of things.


And yet, a spirit of interior excavation and opportunity is alive in the mind of lyricist Emily Cross and her bandmates Dan Duszynski and Jonathan Meiburg (of Shearwater) on their second album as the band Loma. And perhaps that’s why this record — Don’t Shy Away — is speaking so deeply to me.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps it’s just that the sounds on this record are enthralling me with a rare power, sounds that remind me of records that shaped my imagination and worked their way into threads of my DNA during my formative years as a writer. I’m recalling symphonic art-rock records like Peter Gabriel’s So and Us and Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and The Sensual World. Those are records that seem to rise up from soulful collaborations between human visionaries and a holy spirit, their poetry casting nets made of images around ideas that are otherwise impossible to harness. Don’t Shy Away is dazzling me in a way no sequence of songs has for years, reminding me just how deeply I can fall in love with the full-album experience from a band at the peak of their powers.

Cross’s softly haunting vocals — which remind me at times of Luluc’s Zoë Randell, at times of Cat Power, at times of Cowboy Junkies’ Margot Timmins — offer up her lyrics in a spirit of suggestion rather than insistence. And the images hum with thematic synergy, always moving half in mystery and half in wisdom, bringing something beautiful and true close but just out of reach so that I’m always reaching, always trying to capture them in words and falling just short.

Don’t Shy Away is a celebration of redemption and discovery through imagination, but it isn’t shiny or happy — it’s a wilderness of surging and intertwining sounds, riven with scars, heavy with hardship, and yet flaring with unexpected blooms and colors. The hope is all the more inspiring for the darkness against which it glimmers. I emerge from every listen feeling grateful, as if I’ve learned to bring back precious stones from dangerous depths: diamonds of beauty and insight.

The album opens with a hushed testimony of finding hope in worlds within:

Stuck beneath the rock
I begin to see the beauty in it
I begin to see the hardness
And the function of it

That pressure, that obstruction becomes a canvas on which imagine possibilities: “I draw some little pictures on it / They are my world.

And then, in “Ocotillo,” as if rising from tangled blankets and dark dreams, as if she has struck the rock and found its hidden reservoir, the singer blooms with strength and the sounds come blazing into color. That’s appropriate, considering the song’s namesake: a cactus-like plant that erupts with vivid red flowers in the desert. In the song, this plant is named alongside creosote, that dark and toxic substance that can be a fertile foundation. There is a sense of new life growing in the presence of suffering, life that will eventually tear free and tumble with the wind. And the song tumbles to a glorious finale, recalling Radiohead’s “National Anthem,” a riotous march of synths, guitars, bass, and horns.

In “Half Silences” — probably the closest thing to a single, with a strong Shearwater vibe (I’m guessing it’s Meiburg’s melody) — the singer turns against the flow of the culture of self-interest, self-promotion, and self-absorption, to discover reservoirs of life, creativity, and faith in paths of humility and unselfconsciousness:

When I remove myself
From the picture
When I reduce myself…

I generate light
Generate heat
Generate breathing
I forget myself
Forget my life
Remember believing
I never get used to your tongue…

In “Elliptical Days,” which spices up the sounds of Peter Gabriel’s “The Rhythm of the Heat,” Cross appeals to something — a creative force, an emotion, a vision — wanting to break free: “I hear you scratching all night / What do you need?” Then, in an echo of Leonard Cohen’s assurance that our wounds and cavities are “how the light gets in,” she sings of “Light gathering / fills the open places / bright batteries … / in the open spaces.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Suzanne Vega songs, “Rusted Pipe,” which is about a resurrection of creativity: “Somewhere deep within / hear the creak that lets the tale begin….”

“Thorn” turns an incidental, half-whispered clip from one of Cook’s podcast monologues — something about a rose and a thorn — into a haunting choral chant that picks up where last album’s transcendent closing track “Black Willow” left off. (And by the way, that’s the song that enchanted the great Brian Eno and led to his collaboration on this record’s similarly haunting final track: “Homing.”)

And in “Breaking Waves Like a Stone,” another Peter Gabriel-esque synthesizer riff that strobes its way into a polyrhythmic anthem, Cross offers more meditations on the not-yet-known:

In a possible sound
In a possible time
There is work to be done
There is drag in the line….

She sounds like she might be reading David Lynch’s book on creative inspiration: Catching the Big Fish. (And by the way, that bass line is the work of Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, another band whose work may come to mind as you play this record again and again.)

“Blue Rainbow” runs on an insistent low-note pulse like a Christopher Nolan film score wearing slippers. It stalks in and out of dissonance, while Cook leads us into ever more abstract and surreal territory:

I feel a pulse, back of my eyes
Blue rainbow
I went down catacombs
I thought it wasn’t possible….

Cross isn’t kidding around in her earnest hope of finding beauty in dark places, as music journalist Mark Newton found when interviewing her for Daily Progress:

“I’ve always been interested and fascinated by death,” she said, explaining she isn’t driven by personal tragedy but rather a desire to make the dying process “as beautiful as birth is.”

She operates a nonmedical practice, Steady Waves End of Life Services — named for a Cross Record song — in Austin, where she helps families work their way through their emotions and the paperwork associated with death. She also tries to engage younger people. One way is through a “living funeral,” where each participant “dies,” is memorialized and then “comes back to life.”

Whatever you make of these endeavors (I tend to be skeptical of any celebration of death as a blessing), you will find it hard to deny that Cross’s musical investigations of dark places are revealing new rays of light. This is not one of those bands risking danger for the sake of swagger or cool, nor delving into darkness for darkness’s sake. These are earnest and ambitious quests to affirm that there is no abyss into which we can fall that we cannot find hope in the depths, running like subterranean rivers, ready to nourish new seeds.

I have no idea whether Cross has studied St. John of Chrysostom’s The Dark Night of the Soul, but I haven’t heard a record that sounds to me so much like a work of deep prayer in a long time — that kind of prayer we pray when we come to the end of our vocabulary and our religion and find a Holy Spirit waiting for us there, praying for us, praying in us, “with groanings too deep for words.” By inviting us into communion in difficult places, Cross is finding sounds that I find heartening, increasing my sense of what is possible even now, while storms go on raging.

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