With unadorned emotional clarity, Rachel Baiman’s crystalline vocals flow over us in the opening lines of, “Joke’s on Me,” the second song on her new album. Baiman’s pure voice floats over shuffling brushes and circling guitar strums, evoking a palpable sense of the cycle of self-doubt and desire and hope. Producer Olivia Hally’s rich and vibrant harmony vocals on the chorus elevate the song, which she co-wrote, to shimmering heights from which the paradox of yearning and disappointment can be seen: “’Cuz every door I kick down leaves me limping towards the promise of the good/And every ceiling shattered, leaves broken glass to gather where I stood.” Baiman and Hally take the familiar phrase, “Joke’s on Me,” and reveal the pain that grows out of being told that we can have everything we want and trying every possible way to achieve our goals: “I work too hard and I lose my shine/From chasing down every god damn dime don’t you know the joke’s on me.”
The ethereal beauty and haunting poignance of “Joke’s on Me” cascades through every song on Baiman’s soul-moving album. The title track, which opens the album, dives deep into the hollow crevices of loss—in this case a miscarriage—swimming through excruciating pain while searching for a way beyond it. The echoing chant-like rounds of the verses mimic the despair of loss, but the swelling refrain on the outro spirals into a hopefulness that takes it measure from an honest embrace of the loss. The lyrical waterfall of “Wyoming Wildflowers” cannily tumbles out brilliantly, weaving reflections about the terror that the absence of color often promotes with acclamations of the beauty that a full panoply of color brings. The exultant pop outro refrain of this song, with a ingenious shift in musical register, is alone worth the price of the record: “I made you a bouquet of dandelions/Stood in the silence after the sirens.” The circling rhythms of “When You Hope It Hurts,” and the song’s banshee-like bridge, mimic the desultory jadedness that comes from having promises broken one time too often, while the Springsteen-like reverberations of the guitars on the Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott-penned “Rust Belt Fields” resonate with the echoes of silence in once-promising life whose soul is now hollowed out by loss. The album closes with the thrumming “The Distance,” which moves resolutely with an “I’ll-go-on-I-can’t-go-on” ambivalence, accepting what the road gives and what it takes away.
These songs on Cycles wash over us with bracing shivers of truth and cleansing quivers of vulnerability and hope. Baiman knows well the faltering rhythms of the human heart and its resilience in shuffling through life’s passages, and her lyrics convey the jagged ways we move from hope to loss and back again.
Cycles is available HERE.