Album Review: ther – ‘a horrid whisper echoes in a palace of endless joy’

Posted: by The Editor

There’s a certain mystique surrounding music born of an artist’s deliberate, often ritualistic retreat into wild solitude–the sprawl of Phil Elverum’s 2020 album-length song, composed while building a house with his brother along Washington’s coastline; the shiver and shimmer of Justin Vernon’s post-breakup opus, For Emma, Forever Ago, recorded a cabin in the woods of Eau Claire, Wisconsin; even the forest vigil that a young Joanna Newsom once embarked on as a self-led coming-of-age ceremony, ripples of which can be heard throughout the span of her discography. 

The debut LP from pseudo-supergroup ther (which includes members of Philly DIY stalwarts like Sadurn and Crooks & Nannies), sounds like a product of similarly rural self-isolation, evoking intimate compositions written and recorded by the light of a fireplace with only attic walls to bear witness. In reality, though, singer-songwriter Heather Jones didn’t have to leave West Philly to achieve this sense of contemplative, woodsy solitude. Whether her subjects appear in the background of natural landscapes–a waning moon, “some tired anecdote about butterflies in jars”–or fading into the rush of urban life like the opening track’s titular “kid” in the train station, her lyrics often read like a field report, a guide to navigating the fragile wilderness of everyday life. 

As its title suggests, a horrid whisper that echoes in a palace of endless joy examines the nagging fear that tugs at the sleeve of those who inch towards optimism, but it’s just as concerned with the tiny bright spots in the midst of all-encompassing misery. Single “big papi lassos the moon” examines the obligations of living, via an anecdote about Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz’s return to the field just days after being shot. Jones doesn’t shy away from the dystopian nature of an athlete being forced back to work in the wake of a near-death experience, but when juxtaposed with her musings on a friend’s plans to start a family, there’s a glimmer of uneasy hope housed in the world-weariness. When she concludes, “you should do what you can do to keep yourself on track / because the season’s almost ended and you signed a contract,” her statement of resignation isn’t necessarily an admission of defeat. 

Ther’s loud-and-quiet slowcore sensibilities lend themselves easily to this push-and-pull between hope and fear, whether these intricate arrangements are underlying a Neutral Milk Hotel-reminiscent expression of the overwhelmingness of modern existence (“How strange to be born in a time like now”) or a physical manifestation of the enormity of love (“You have a beauty that passes right through me / It bounces around in my chest /  It’s a great thing of wonder that I’ve been crushed under / I wish I was more at my best”). 

In these love songs masquerading as worship hymns–or vice versa–distortion pedals are used sparingly but with great force, each instance of sudden heaviness falling upon a sparse folk instrumental like a massive gust of wind flattening a field of grass. They are, to borrow Jones’ phrasing, “a rumble and a roar.” She marvels at “finally knowing what beautiful feels like,” and listening to a horrid whisper…, it’s easy to say the same. 

a horrid whisper… is out now.


Grace Robins-Somerville | @grace_roso

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