The latest record from Jacksonville's Shannon Wright opens like a pop opera. There's a single, see-sawing piano part — an introduction of the theme, if you will — a somersaulting countermelody, and then Wright enters, dressed in black, singing: "You help me do the things I hold." Finally, in comes the band, big and doomy and cacophonous, crashing against the song's haunted chorus.
That's Shannon Wright in a nutshell: a little whisper followed by a tremendous bang. The record is called Let in the Light, but don't let that fool you — the only reason the shades are up is so she can make bigger shadows. Wright's been making records like this for six years now, stark, trembling works with songs as barren and foreboding as winter trees. Light is her most accomplished and considered work to date, an album of omens and missed opportunities.
Wright has a severe voice, full of chalk dust and bad dreams, and she knows how to convey anguish without sneering or sulking. She drapes it over the songs like a black cape, rivaling PJ Harvey's holy howl in "St. Pete" and sounding threatening in the brittle, charging "Don't You Doubt Me." As grim as Light is, though, it never sounds morose or leaden or self-pitying — the songs vibrate with a kind of contained intensity, tight coils of guitar and crackling drums. It's got the same night-terror nausea as Cat Power's Moon Pix, but where that record often traded interior turbulence for mystic fascination, Wright's songs are consistently grounded in chilly realism. "If not for you, I would be/ a broken bird with broken wings/ that won't move/ that won't mend," Wright sings late in the record. A felled bird is certainly no pop music novelty, but Wright hangs on to the image for four full lines, moving past simple throwaway metaphor to emphasize its stillness, its brokenness, its frailty. For the record, the song that contains that couplet is called "They'll Kill the Actor in the End."
Light starts out as a guitar record, but it's Wright's piano playing that dominates its latter half. It comes pirouetting in tragically, like an imposing symbolic character in some grey European art film. It's not hard to imagine Bela Tarr's peasants or Bergman's play-actors shuffling their way across a muddy farm to the icy spirals Wright plays in "Steadfast and True" or the waltz-like danse macabre "You Baffle Me." It makes the songs seem majestic and crumbling at the same time, like a Gothic castle or a ruined tapestry. Let in the Light is full of portent and mystery, and it gives up its secrets sparingly.