Strand of Oaks

Strand of Oaks Stares Down Death and Begins to Heal

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 07.23.14 in Features

It was Christmas 2013 when death came for Tim Showalter. He and his wife Sue were driving home to Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, from Goshen, the town in Indiana where Showalter’s parents live. Showalter grew up in Goshen; fragments of his adolescence turn up in “Goshen ’97,” the first song on HEAL, his latest record as Strand of Oaks. It was that record that Showalter was returning to Pennsylvania to mix when, about 15 minutes into their drive, he heard his wife whisper, “Oh no.”

Before he could respond, the back tires fishtailed and the car spiraled over the divider that separated the west and eastbound lanes, directly into oncoming traffic. Eventually, it skidded to a halt, at the precise moment one semi-trailer was attempting to pass another. Both slammed directly into the Showalters’ car, plowing it forward 100 feet. The force of the impact brought one of the trucks to a dead stop. The other one drove directly on top of them.

“As the car was spinning,” Showalter says, sitting at a table at Spitzer’s Corner on New York’s Lower East Side, not a scratch on him, “we weren’t scared. We weren’t screaming. I just remember saying softly, ‘It’s OK, Sue. It’s OK.’”

‘I was in a Honda Fit and two semi trucks couldn’t stop me. I literally just looked at my own mortality and said, ‘You sonofabitch. You are not fucking taking me down.’’

Later, when Showalter went to the impound yard to collect their possessions from the ruined vehicle, the owner of the lot asked him, “Did you know the people who owned this car?” Showalter was confused. “What do you mean?” he asked. The owner of the lot paused, and then said, “The people who owned this car — are you a relative? The police told us they both died.”

Recounting the story, Showalter laughs. “That’s when I was like, ‘I don’t give a fuck. I was in a Honda Fit and two semi trucks couldn’t stop me. I literally just looked at my own mortality and said, ‘You sonofabitch. You are not fucking taking me down.’”

The accident functions as a perfect, real-world parallel to HEAL‘s themes of breakdown and rehabilitation — a symmetry Showalter hates, but is also something that he has gotten used to. His first record, Leave Ruin, was about the painful dissolution of his first serious relationship, and it happened to be written shortly after the cabin in which he was living burned to the ground, taking everything he owned with it. Try though he may, Showalter’s life always seems to provide dark, tangible symbols for his art, all of which tend to be seized on and written about until the circumstances surrounding each album surpass the album itself. Showalter writes considered, nuanced albums; The Universe responds by providing Big, Thundering Metaphors. “If it’s not a cabin,” he sighs, “it’s a fucking car accident.”

The symbols Showalter chooses tend to be a bit more artful. His dazzling 2010 high-water mark Pope Killdragon was catharsis disguised as space opera, Tolkein by way of The Neverending Story, with a bit of the Book of Revelation thrown in for good measure. “I read somewhere when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were writing those books, they were all veterans of World War I,” Showalter says. “They physically couldn’t write realism, because to talk about World War I in realistic ways was almost too painful for them to imagine. They had to morph a tank into Sauron, because that’s what the German army probably looked like to the Brits. And I probably did a lot of the same thing for Pope Killdragon.” He explains this the way he explains most things — excitedly and emphatically, with a wild gleam in his eye and the hurried cadence and breathless enthusiasm of a kid explaining the plot of Star Wars to a close friend who hasn’t seen it.

He maintains this tone even when talking about Dark Shores, the follow-up to Killdragon, about which Showalter makes no attempt to hide his disappointment. Recorded with John Vanderslice, Shores stripped away all the things that made Killdragon such a spectacular oddity — the sun-warped synths, the strange peyote visions — instead situating him in parched-prairie Americana because, as Showalter puts it, he didn’t have the guts to realize his original vision. “I was talking about space stations and even deeper sci-fi shit than Pope Killdragon, but it came out like an alt-country record. It gags me to think about that kind of music. I felt like I wrote 10 songs of a lesser quality than the ones on Pope Killdragon.”

‘I could have been the biggest dubstep DJ in the world. I could’ve been meeting you in my golden helicopter. But sonofabitch had to buy a Neil Young record when I was 15 and be like ‘Ooooh, the acoustic guitar!’’

So it’s fitting, then, that HEAL starts all over again at the beginning. Its opening moments depict a young Showalter in his parents’ basement, uncovering an old tape machine and pounding out songs on a Casio. (Though Showalter is often thought of as a “singer/songwriter,” his first love has always been synthesizers. “I could have been the biggest dubstep DJ in the world,” he sighs. “I could’ve been meeting you in my golden helicopter. But sonofabitch had to buy a Neil Young record when I was 15 and be like “Ooooh, the acoustic guitar!”) I mention to Showalter that the song, “Goshen ’97,” reminded me of the way film studios reboot franchises once they’ve run too far off the rails, and he emphatically agrees. “It’s like, you had Batman & Robin, that horrible Joel Schumacher thing, and then they rebooted. It’s the same thing with this record — I allowed myself to hit the ‘reset’ button.”

In truth, HEAL doesn’t feel like a rebirth as much as a reincarnation: While the mirage-like synthetic textures have returned, they’re layered carefully into the songs rather than casting a bright, distracting sheen across them. “Strange Emotions” is yanked along by a weird neon synth lead, but it serves as a kind of glowing melodic backbone for the song rather than just serving as filigree. The beautiful, elegiac “Woke Up to the Light” drifts along on a glimmering electronic sea, a choral number for an android church. And while Showalter’s sword-and-sorcerer lyrics have always essentially been veiled autobiography, on HEAL, the curtain is lifted. The characters at the center of its songs aren’t Showalter-as-mystic-friar or Showalter-as-Giant. They’re just Showalter — “fat, drunk and mean,” as he puts it on “Goshen ’97,” naked in the Great Lakes on “Plymouth,” begging through tears for a friend to let him drift to his death. “When I started this record, it was going to be called Desert Heat, and it was going to be a doom metal record set in a post-apocalyptic world,” Showalter says. “But then I thought, ‘That’s fucking bullshit.’ It’s so easy to live in fantasy. There’s no giants coming over the mountains anymore. There’s no songs about Dan Aykroyd. There’s no stories at all on this record. There’s no symbols or allegories. It’s just what it was.”

And what it was, as it turns out, was brutal and terrifying. It chronicles two years of Showalter’s life where he plunged headlong into alcoholism, mental illness, marital infidelity and its seemingly never-ending aftermath. It’s not an album about recovery — it’s an album about being genuinely terrified recovery isn’t possible. “The album title is HEAL — all caps,” Showalter says. “You’re shouting it at someone. It’s not a nice, soothing bath in lavender. It’s a fucking command to get better.” As he talks, it’s hard not to notice his right arm, and the tattoo written in enormous block letters from his wrist to his elbow. It says “Survive.”

‘The album title is HEAL — all caps. You’re shouting it at someone. It’s not a nice, soothing bath in lavender. It’s a fucking command to get better.’

In much the same way it ended, HEAL was born in suffering. “I was at the end of a tour that had been going on for two years,” Showalter says. “I was playing a show in Sweden, and I was halfway through [Leave Ruin's] ‘Sister Evangeline.’ And I lost my mind. The song ended, and my tour manager came up to me and said, ‘You added a lot of new words to that song tonight.’ I didn’t realize it, but I’d sang, like, three entirely new verses. I was crying onstage in front of all these well-behaved Swedish people who were like” — in an enthusiastic Swedish accent — “‘We saw you open for Tallest Man on Earth!’” Instead of repairing to his hotel, Showalter went out and partied for the remainder of the night, wandering the city with a small, rowdy crowd of strangers. “What happened was, it was the first time that I didn’t feel lonely,” Showalter says. “And I suddenly realized how lonely I’d been for two years. I hadn’t seen any kind of mental sunrise in two years, but I just didn’t realize it. And I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ It was an awakening. And then two days later, I was home.”

Home, however, did not mean reprieve, just a return to the issues Showalter had gone on the road in part to avoid. During one of his tours, Showalter’s wife had an affair with a man who lived in their neighborhood. It’s an incident Showalter addresses in harrowing, violent detail on “Mirage Year.” In the song’s first verse, he implies the infidelity was mutual (“There was one for me/ and many more for you/ the number was a fight I couldn’t lose”) before plunging headlong into its chilling ending: “That winter when you took my love/ and that fucker was having his fun/ but my hands are worth more than your blood.” The line is punctuated by an anguished, bone-rattling scream.

But for as forthright and confrontational as Showalter is about the incident on record, in reality it was slipperier, and Showalter more avoidant. “We had this horrible problem together, and I got a call from The Tallest Man on Earth, saying, ‘Hey, do you want to go on the road with us for two years?’ So right at the lowest point of my marriage, I was swept away from domestic downfall. And that’s where I left it.” In his frantic touring schedule, Showalter found a clean getaway from the truth. “It creates an illusion,” he explains. “You’re home for two weeks, you relax, you bone, you have a good time and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m gone again. This was great! Thanks!’ My home became what most people go to Florida for.”

‘You can listen to someone cheating in a Townes Van Zandt song. But when you’re talking about cheating on each other in a marriage and it’s yours, you’re like, ‘Fuck. This is me.’’

The consequence, by Showalter’s admission, is that the situation was never properly confronted — it was shunted to short discussions, or avoided entirely in favor of maintaining some kind of quiet status quo. In that way, it’s tempting to read HEAL as Showalter’s attempt to have the conversation that never happened, to work through his anger in public. But by doing so, Showalter is flinging open the curtains on not only his own private life, but on his wife’s private life, exposing another person’s weakest moments and bringing them — whether they want to go or not — on his journey to redemption. Artistically, it’s fearless. But the effect of publicly opening and reopening these wounds, song after song, interview after interview, is difficult to work out. And it raises a host of thorny questions — about who gets to control the narrative and, when it concerns another person, where the line between art and autobiography should be drawn — or if it should be drawn at all. “You can listen to someone cheating in a Townes Van Zandt song,” Showalter says. “But when you’re talking about cheating on each other in a marriage and it’s yours, you’re like, ‘Fuck. This is me.’ And truthfully, I don’t know if we’re back from it yet,” he admits. “I’m forcing myself to talk about it because we haven’t figured it out yet. And I hope we do figure it out.” He pauses for a moment and laughs. “I’m the one being interviewed, but my wife should get a medal.”

But for all its darkness, HEAL is also full of moments of tenderness and beauty. As bleak and violent as “Mirage Year” is, the gentle, hymn-like “Plymouth” is almost its emotional inverse. It contains the album’s most moving passage — a snapshot of the moment Showalter met his wife: “I met you when your hair was short/ and my ego had barely formed/ it took a jug of wine just to ask you home/ We took black and white pictures with your hooded sweatshirt on/ we were beautiful, broken and young.” And though the correlation irritates Showalter, of course he and his wife would be in that same car together, just after Christmas in 2013, with death barreling toward them, and Showalter softly whispering, “It’s OK. It’s OK.” That’s the juxtaposition: life-altering violence cross-cut with intimacy; deafening noise drowned out by a loving whisper; chaos and togetherness, beautifully, brutally, inextricably linked.

” I was talking to a friend and he was like, ‘It seems like this record is a big step forward,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think it’s a step forward. I think I fucking hit a brick wall, and then I dynamited the wall. I was like ‘Fuck this wall. I’m destroying it.’” The image fits: Sometimes violent demolition is the only way forward.