This Playlist Hurts: The 10 Best Laura Stevenson Songs
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Comedian Chris Gethard recently said it best when talking about Laura Stevenson’s lyrics—”they just cut right through you.” When Stevenson’s work hits you, it really hits you. Over the course of more than two decades, she has perfected the art of landing just the right note in her songwriting, often nailing a point so visceral and deeply felt that it can make you feel weak at the knees. From swooping balladry to twinkling indie folk to raucous punk rock, Stevenson has shapeshifted her way across five incredible full-lengths, each with their own distinct and rich personality. Always, though, her spectral, luminous, powerful voice keeps everything unmistakably hers.
With the approaching reissue of one of those landmark albums Sit Resist (out September 4th) and the ongoing retrospective podcast Life’s Work, now seems like the perfect time to take a broad look back at Stevenson’s eclectic and underrated catalogue of songs. I have painstakingly curated this list of her ten best tracks with an eye toward those that will do the most work in introducing new listeners to Stevenson’s dense and unremittingly wonderful body of work, helping you navigate your way through the kind of music that may just cut right through you.
Check out the list below, and listen along to the Spotify playlist while you read.
10. “Torch Song”
I’ve always been especially fond of Stevenson’s loud, punk-leaning fourth album Cocksure, which largely gives her balladic and orchestral sides a little break in favor of a rawer, more fevered rock sound. “Torch Song” was the lead single from Cocksure and it immediately stood out as one of her most incredible earworms—I think this song’s tumbling hook has not fully left my brain since it was first released in 2015. It’s also a great primer for all of the tension and frustration that define Cocksure, which often used loud rock music to carve out a space for Stevenson’s sometimes uncomfortably honest lyrics. “T-t-test me,” she sings with an annoyed assurance in the midst of what appears to be a pretty incisive tell-off (although Stevenson has said that she wrote the song about “literally nothing”). But really, it’s the big, loud, zig-zag riff that holds the song down and makes “Torch Song” stand out as one of Stevenson’s best.
9. “Nervous Rex”
Laura Stevenson’s first record is just called A Record, and it’s impressive how a title that seems so flippant does so much, in hindsight, to describe the album’s place in Stevenson’s body of work. A Record sounds like the humble beginning the title presupposes, and there’s so much beauty to be found while Stevenson lays the groundwork for such a storied career. “Nervous Rex” is kind of the purest ideal of a Laura Stevenson song. A lo-fi, laptop-recorded acoustic song, “Nervous Rex” is a bare and beautiful little song that shows off Stevenson’s unbelievable voice, dripping with emotion while her acoustic guitar plucks and twinkles behind her. In the podcast Life’s Work, Stevenson called this her first “real love song,” with Jeff Rosenstock pointing out that it was being recorded as she was writing it—”hearing the song’s recording, you’re actually hearing the song’s creation.” As such, “Nervous Rex” feels like an intense emotional experience playing out in real time.
8. “The Healthy One”
“The Healthy One” stands out for how happy-go-lucky it sounds, and a great deal of this jubilance is to the credit of the song’s expanded cast of characters. Life’s Work gets into the ways in which Sit Resist, Stevenson’s second album, was more of a collaborative affair, the result of a collective of talented musicians working to expand and flesh out these songs. “The Healthy One” is maybe the best example of this spirit of group creativity, adorned as it is with a bright and jaunty accordion backbone and a twittering glockenspiel. All the while, Stevenson shows off a sharpened eye for storytelling, packing as much detail into the opening verses as she can (“And it’s clear with all the critters weakening your sisters/ And your system’s running quick and not as sickly as you think”) before hitting the point home with a rousing refrain (“And you will live long/ You will bury them all in the ground/ And your body will grow/ You will bury them all”). This is the kind of song that hooks you in with a vibrant, bouncy sound, but it sticks with you because of Stevenson’s ability to efficiently and vividly describe a scene before acutely getting to the heart of it all.
7. “Halloween Pts. 1 and 2”
It’s the way this one comes to life that really gets me. The opener to Sit Resist, an album that expanded upon Stevenson’s capabilities as a songwriter and stretched her musical palette in a way that would set the scene for the rest of her career, “Halloween Pts. 1 and 2” is notable for how it unfolds. Starting off as a meandering and thoughtful guitar song that seems to echo in a small, lonely room, “Halloween Pts. 1 and 2” eventually bursts into action with the full force of the band that Stevenson has gathered around her. Here, Stevenson’s power as a vocalist is transformed into something we hadn’t heard from her up until this point—as the band begins to pick up, Stevenson sounds as if she’s moving the earth, reaching for an emotional truth that she alone has the power to unlock. “I am underneath,” she sings repeatedly throughout the song. But really, “Halloween Pts. 1 and 2” shows that as these arrangements get bigger and more dramatic, Stevenson is still positioned at the very center.
6. “Lay Back, Arms Out”
Last year’s The Big Freeze played as a direct counter to Cocksure’s guitar rock aesthetic, dissolving all of the volume and grit to bring the focus back down to earth, returning to a more familiar singer-songwriter sound that swoons and churns with orchestral flourishes. True to the album’s title, these songs are icy but far from cold-hearted, building on the lyrical honesty of Cocksure but with less fuzz to hide behind. All of this makes for Stevenson’s most beautiful and heartbreaking collection yet, and “Lay Back, Arms Out” is perhaps the best of the bunch. The slow and patient but emotionally raw nature of this song brings a lot more focus to Stevenson’s lyrics, allowing her best, most evocative writing ever to shine through:
The charts of all the stars you read
They make me feel illest at ease
The teasing blink of a plane
And now you cut it back and buds will form
There’s flooding on the bottom floor
Don’t go upstairs, it’ll trap you up there
So lay back, arms out, all-in, unfeeling
I’ll keep my deep, pristine, unflinching cool
The rolling, natural flow of her language as she chillingly and deliberately delivers these lines is undeniable, casting an aura of a majestic and unavoidable doom over this incredible opening track.
One of the many highlights on Wheel, Laura Stevenson’s third record and perhaps the apex of her career thus far, “L-Dopa” is a swelling, towering ballad that deals with a fraught and complex relationship to family as an artist and how to carry on doing something that your loved ones might not understand. “There are no wings hitched to my spine/ Just an undying urge to climb/ And I’ll wait for my mother, supposing she’d bother/ To hold me and keep me a while,” Stevenson sings at the end of the song, after it’s gone full circle from a sparse, lonely affair to a devastating climax and back again. “L-Dopa” deftly and gorgeously articulates a very difficult kind of sadness—that of being misunderstood with not much hope of fixing it—with such profound empathy it almost feels like a tiny miracle.
4. “Master of Art”
“Master of Art” is one of a few perfect crossroads for Laura Stevenson’s many unique talents. Her powerful, emotive voice hopscotching up crooked mountains, constantly searching for higher peaks. Her cutting, particular lyrics encapsulating a familiar but distinct emotion (“You should know that I am often difficult”). And her ability to write brilliant, endlessly playable rock and roll songs. This is a song that feels like a vital part of Stevenson’s canon, the moment on Sit Resist when it was clear that her and The Cans meant business.
“Telluride” and “L-Dopa” comprise the climax of Laura’s third album Wheel and also the most stunning one-two punch in Stevenson’s catalogue, an incredible display of her talent and part of the reason why I count her as one of our greatest working songwriters. “Telluride” is an aching piece of bluesey rock and roll that fills the room with a booming, dramatic wall of sound. In one of her greatest turns of phrase, Stevenson pushes her voice as far as it can go in the most thrilling refrain of her career—”And tell a lie, tell it 1,000 times/ Telluride, I told you 1,000 times.” Stevenson has said that “Telluride” is actually about conspiracy theories, which seems like kind of a jokey subject for a song that feels like such a tremendous catharsis.
2. “Out With a Whimper”
As you can tell by my inclusion of “Lay Back, Arms Out” and “Halloween Pts. 1 and 2” in this list, I think Stevenson is particularly adept at opening her albums with a strong statement of intent. “Out With a Whimper” shows this power in full force, a song that follows in the footsteps of “Telluride,” its bluesy peaks allowing Stevenson to exorcise her feelings of exhaustion and uncertainty to massive results. The two singles leading up to the release of Cocksure, “Torch Song” and “Jellyfish,” were both poppier, punk-leaning cuts that might have falsely indicated that Stevenson was headed in a lighter direction with her new album (although, on closer inspection, the lyrics to “Jellyfish” would beg to differ). That impression is completely shattered with this opening track. Instead “Out With a Whimper” showed that Laura was taking the framework that she had established on her previous three albums and turning up the volume and sharpening the edges. This may be my underdog pick for this list, but each and every time I return to “Out With a Whimper,” I am left speechless, moreso when I remember that Stevenson is singing about being fed up with the inane and disheartening realities of life as a working artist. “Out With a Whimper” is proof that sometimes our greatest moments arrive just as we’re threatening to give up for good.
“This summer hurts. This summer hurts. This summer hurts.” When this song hits you, it doesn’t matter what season it actually is outside, I don’t give a fuck, it’s summer now, and it really does hurt. This may seem an obvious choice to place at the very top of Laura Stevenson’s catalogue—”Runner” is probably her best-known song—but sometimes there’s truth to consensus. “Runner” is the song that Chris Gethard was referring to when he talked about the way that Stevenson’s lyrics “cut right through you,” (“Runner” also appears at the very end of Gethard’s incredible stand-up special Career Suicide) and he’s absolutely right. The lyrics in this song are about as down in the dumps as they come, documenting a universal feeling of rote depression, an endless wheel of pointless dread that you can’t seem to shake yourself out of. “Runner” doesn’t offer solutions, but lord does it feel good to let these words escape your mouth alongside Stevenson’s rambling, cathartic melody:
You are a runner, the steady balance as you’re gaining in speed
A photograph to scale the thrashing of your feet
And it won’t be over until the big, backhand of the sun
Beats the tar out of the road you’re on until it’s won you
It feels like staring the pain in the face and calling out its name. And when I think about “Runner,” I imagine Stevenson playing it in a big room full of people, all of us together chanting these words and jumping up and down to the song’s quick, heart-fluttering beat, and, just then, it’s like we all know the same secret to carrying on.
The new reissue of Sit Resist is out September 4 on Don Giovanni Records, you can order that here.
You can also listen to Life’s Work, the retrospective podcast on the album here.
Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh
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