Sarabeth Tucek - Get Well Soon
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this ground."
(Emily Dickinson, A Country Burial)
Death is not the end. Oh, but it is. It is. Sarabeth Tucek's second album (coming three years after her self-titled debut) confronts the inevitable, stares it down and puts distance between the fluffily labelled and casually trumpeted notion of 'a better place' and the brittle reality of the deep loss and unpalatable grief caused by the death of a loved one. They were here, now they're gone. Now what? Where to put all of that love, all those connections, all of that reliance?
Get Well Soon is a work triggered by the death (and life) of Tucek's father. She describes it as "an impressionistic rendering of a time ruled by grief." The key word in that painfully accurate description defines the challenge for the listener. Get Well Soon is a weighty, cerebral affair. There is little in the way of literal narrative and the test for the listener is huge but that challenge brings with it undeniable reward. Its focus on death achieves that heady distinction that all great art on the subject ultimately uncovers: that life, despite its often unbearable trials, is worth living. Sarabeth Tucek may well have made the record of the year.
Get Well Soon hangs together on a series of snapshots and dreamlike memories. At times it's not immediately obvious who exactly the 'narrator' is. Songs seem to play with time and place in surreal, disorientating ways. I find myself, at times, still trying to piece it all together, which may well be an interpretative mistake and the equivalent of standing in front of a Rothko and trying to work out what it 'is'. But largely I marvel at a record that presents an array of stylistic touchstones that range from the Lou Reed influenced piano balladry of 'Smile For No One' to the hefty country rock of 'State I Am In', from the wintry, hymnal overture of album opener 'The Wound and the Bow' to the gargantuan 'Rising', where it seems Neil Young (very much in Crazy Horse mode) has wandered in and casually thundered through the most devastatingly beautiful chord sequence imaginable. The lilting folk-pop of 'The Doctor', with echoes (particularly when Tucek's voice is double-tracked and soaked in reverb) of Laura Nyro, meets head on the spiralling, psychadelic tumult of 'Exit Ghost', Tucek's palette signalling a thrilling lack of conformity.
Fans of her 2007 debut will find its key components in place here; piano and guitar weave themselves around minimal, understated backing. Just when you're least expecting it, the latter goes electric and how, the likes of the aforementioned 'Rising' matching for clout and volume first track proper 'Wooden' a stinging hail storm of overdrive. And beneath all of this are the voice and the words. The latter come flinty and pure, as elegant as a haiku. Hints of the deeper history nibble at your cognisance. On 'The Fireman' Tucek sings "I had a dream, late at night in my room / I was a child ... and you said, I will always be your father / And you will always be my daughter, but I cannot bring you water." Snippets such as these tease and intrigue. Later Tucek is "hot with grief" begging her gardener not to cut down her trees. There's the surging coda of 'Rising' where she sings, implores, "I can't wait to see you again" over and over. This hot grief is ever present but masked by a clarity and acceptance that beguile. Self-pity is notable by its absence and the closing title track swaps the previous intensity for something altogether lighter, its ringing major chords perhaps signifying a lifting of the fog and an arrival of sorts.
Tucek's singing voice, this album's stongest suit (despite much competition from other quarters) comes in a dazzling array of colours and shapes. Bare and at the top of its range on 'The Wound and the Bow' or fuller, hot and rich on 'At The Bar', it's a vocal performance that Get Well Soon's near-concept album structure demands. She doesn't so much sing her songs as converge on them; it strikes you that this deeply personal material would be hellishly difficult to cover.
I left Get Well Soon, an often uncomfortably candid examination of the architecture of pain, feeling somehow lighter and more alive - moved, affected and changed in ways that are difficult to quantify but real enough, weighty enough to touch and feel. In parts, it's as playful and witty as it is soul-searching, its emotional resonance much broader than its subject matter might typically demand. Such is its scope, such is its inviolable achievement. Tucek has told a vividly personal story that has as much to offer as a shared listening experience as it does to its writer and the need she had to put into words and music her experiences. If, as with the bond between father and daughter here, the deepest love really does endure, this magnificent record will live forever. Here, writ large, is proof of Thomas Mann's assertion that a man's dying is more the survivor's affair than his own.