Every Strand of Oaks album has been accompanied by a peripheral narrative about Timothy Showalter, Consummate Underdog. He battled homelessness and a bad breakup prior to his debut Leave Ruin and obscurity on 2010′s brilliant Pope Killdragon, a prog-folk wonder too good to be ignored but too strange to capitalize on the wave of interest in Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth and Fleet Foxes. After the muted follow-up Dark Shores, Showalter served as the opening act for seemingly every artist in the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans galaxy and it resulted in a rare moment of good luck for the guy — he’s now signed to Dead Oceans.
He’s on the verge of a breakthrough now — a point which is perhaps too overtly made by the cover art for HEAL, which is suspiciously similar to that of Muchacho, the album from Dead Oceans’ 2013 journeyman-turned-star Phosphorescent. As always, Showalter’s telling stories, only this time, they are explicitly autobiographical — instead of JFK’s bastard son, a vengeful Dan Aykroyd and a lonely space farmer, the main character is always Timothy Showalter.
Hard luck and hard lessons abound, culminating in the seven-minute “JM,” a gargantuan tribute to Jason Molina where Showalter frames every drunken fuck-up, every fight, every instance of infidelity, every argument with his parents within his relationship with his idol’s music; it’s touching and also disquieting to hear someone in Showalter’s position identify with the pathologies of a brilliant songwriter who cut all of his ties so he could isolate and drink himself to death.
But otherwise, HEAL uses Showalter’s mistakes and struggles as foreplay for eventual redemption — you can hear it in the galvanizing origin story “Goshen ’97″ even before J. Mascis shows up and “Shut In”‘s lighter-waving chorus. Yet, there’s a sense that his most “personal” album has sacrificed some of his individuality, as HEAL‘s hackles-raising moments are delivered in the most familiar vehicles — reverbed, Springsteen-esque yearning, distorted power chords, glistening drum machines. Still, If you’ve been following Showalter for the past five years, you can revel in a success that seems inevitable given the same hackles-raising moments HEAL is capable of delivering.