Review: Heartless Bastards A Beautiful Life
Erika Wennerstrom's extraordinary personal and artistic journey reaches a new pinnacle
Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., Sept. 17, 2021
"I will begin again," Erika Wennerstrom declares on the epic six-minute title track centerpiece to Heartless Bastards' sixth LP. Following a five-year band break and a solo turn from the lead vocalist, A Beautiful Life emerges not just as a reset, but as a breakthrough, both artistic and personal.
Across the past two decades and various incarnations of the Heartless Bastards, Wennerstrom has unraveled a history of seeking, want, and escape in her liquidating vocals and raw, open-veined lyrics. Even from the band's earliest Ohio formation and the bluesy garage rock of 2005's Stairs and Elevators and 2006's All This Time, Wennerstrom pulled cathartic toward some elusive deeper purpose and meaning.
In retrospect, each album sets a clear landmark mapping along Wennerstrom's long, grand awakening. The Mountain rises with its own rebirth after the group's relocation to Austin, a rousing statement of independence and reveling in the uncertainty of change.
Arrow (2012) and Restless Ones (2015) subsequently burned along the open road, Wennerstrom turned toward the endless horizon yet, inevitably, still only finding herself. In between, the songwriter continued to remake her band, trekked to the Amazon on an ayahuasca retreat, and began to look inward for change and purpose (see "Restless One," June 12, 2015).
The self-reflection culminated in 2018's solo outing Sweet Unknown. The album surges with a sense of gratitude, self-awareness, and acceptance. "I think it's uplifting because I've found strength in my vulnerability," Wennerstrom told the Chronicle at its release, and songs like "Letting Go," "Be Good to Yourself," and "Good to Be Alone" bolster as mantras of self-care.
That arc to healing leads directly to the triumph of A Beautiful Life. From the outset, Wennerstrom appeals outward in a way she hasn't before. Opening track "Revolution" – winner of last year's Austin Music Award for Song of the Year – insists "the revolution is in your mind" as it unleashes into a psychedelic "White Rabbit" fury, with an urgency that breaks from Wennerstrom's previous solipsisms.
Likewise, over the sharp, stunted chords of "How Low", asks "People can we get together and help each other out?" in the face of greed and social injustice. "Let's all fill up with love," she demands, Wennerstrom's vision of radical self-love resounding as a defiant political statement.
Easily her most emphatic work lyrically, the album also proves her most adventurous musically. Co-produced with Kevin Ratterman, Wennerstrom leans on familiar backing from Jesse Ebaugh and Lauren Gurgiolo as the sound swirls with touches of Sixties psych-laced folk and pop. "When I Was Younger" intoxicates with a string quartet swooning against booming meditative percussion from talented new drummer Greg Clifford, and David Pulkingham's guitar laces "You Never Know" with a surprising Françoise Hardy French pop feel. Elsewhere, "Went Around the World" carves new territory as the strings cut sharply into dark skittering beats, and "River" flows provocatively with Fared Shafinury's Persian setar and Andrew Bird's violin into the beautiful benediction of "Dust." Closer "The Thinker" hearkens Karen Dalton or Judee Sill in its sparse unwinding meditation.
Familiar song fragments float through Wennerstrom's spiraling chants, repurposed like a scrapbook piecing together meaning ("All you need is love"; "No use to sit and wonder why, baby it don't matter now"). Yet they pastiche more as collective touchpoints, anchoring her calls to action amid the ambiguities of late-stage capitalism. "Let's build an army and fight fear with love" she pleads through the shifting psych trip of "Photograph."
Although certainly not the capstone to Wennerstrom's extraordinary personal and artistic journey, A Beautiful Life reaches a new pinnacle for the songwriter, and signals a remarkable turning point on a new path forward.