Three Favorite Lyricists


The Review’s Review

Three white-tailed deer. Courtesy of National Geographic. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I began listening to Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s Full Moon Mystery Garden after I took two road trips through Death Valley, the first literal (in California) and the second figurative (in a hospital). So when I heard him say “On a mountain under full moon / I could say goodnight and mean it” and then “Another night I’m in the magic mirror / Another night engaged in seeing signs,” it felt like, well, a sign. Symbols, like mirrors, are roads to the other side; I have always been obsessed with looking for and in both. Though both of my trips actually happened, their allegorical affinity made them each less real, and harder, somehow, to return from. Seeing yourself through reflections can be a way of playing dead, of getting lost where you are not; in Full Moon Mystery Garden, it is also a way to get found.

The album’s sigillic scenery is almost too familiar: black cat, black Polo, moon, mountain, mirror. But Wicca has an uncanny ability to show us what are basically gothic stock images under a strange new light, reanimating them. If similarly symbolically-hyperactive Bladee’s falsetto makes incantations out of normal nouns, Wicca’s hoarseness brings the otherworld to earth: rural Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island. That’s magic, I guess—or music. Wicca’s older work is equally lyrically brilliant, but more claustrophobic: words are exchanged in bedrooms, in clubs, over text, in bad relationships. Now, he’s alone in a car looking out, “the twilight on repeat.” The album, which has four different songs with the word moon in the title, drives you along a kind of psychogeographic cul-de-sac, a looping map of road signs that seem to occur in too many places at once—the same way certain American towns all look the same, the way they all have a Main Street, a Crescent Street, and trees at their edges. Ex–emo teens will recognize the landscape. The album’s frequent refrain—“In one mile, turn left on Garden Avenue”—is spoken by a female GPS. Though he knows what road he’s on (“Dark Region Road”) and where he’s going (the “portal through the pines,” “Hickory Grove”), he still needs directions: a voice from elsewhere, an image out there that lets him recognize what he already knows. Funny how another person’s words can lead you gradually back to a place where your self and your world coincide—to life. “The meadow isn’t that far away,” and the mystery, meanwhile, is here.

I was on a back road by myself
In Waverly Township
Totally immersed in where I was and what I felt
Amazing how a simple drive
Can open my eyes
To what is out there

—Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor

This week, I’ve had Caroline Polachek’s new album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You on repeat. On the album’s cover, Polachek crawls steadily into the alluring mirage that is the unknown. I’ve been transfixed by the album’s twelve songs and the images she so deftly conjures through her clever lyricism. Fire, dirt, blood, and skies abound in her “mythicalogical” audiovisual tapestry, but some of my favorite moments on the album arrive when she attempts to draw the blinds on desire. It’s the shape-shifting molten rock under the volcano, and not the smoke, that she wants to get to. Desire invariably molds us, no matter how much we want to do the molding ourselves. 

“These days I wear my body like an uninvited guest.”

“I fly to you / Not just somewhere deep inside of me.”

“How does it feel to know / your final form?”

“I forget who I was before I was the way I am with you.”

—Alejandra Quintana Arocho, intern

“I think Mengistu Haile Mariam is my neighbor,” begins “Asylum,” the opening track on billy woods’s Aethiopes, which is not even his most recent album.

Whoever it is moved in and put an automated gate up
Repainted brick walls atop which now cameras rotated …
Avocado tree hang over the property line
I watch from as high as I can climb …
My mother sent the gardener to look for me
But the sky is a great place to hide

They might not have actually lived next door to each other, but woods spent part of his childhood in Zimbabwe, where the former Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam fled at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War. The factual truth of anecdotes like this one, interspersed throughout woods’s lyrics, is irrelevant; the figures that populate them always seem to originate in a place of real memory. The prolific Brooklyn-based rapper conceals his face in music videos and interviews not because he’s playing a character, like the late MF DOOM, but as a measure of privacy as he shows extreme vulnerability.

His lines often construct claustrophobic, almost dystopian worlds, and then swiftly move into moments of tender innocence that still occur inside them. Featured on the rapper Navy Blue’s “Poderoso”:

Afternoons wander the catacombs, tomes line the rooms
Every room a tomb, every shelf hoarding doom
I kissed her in the stacks under the biblioteca
Just once
Tasted like sweet peppers and blunts, peppermint gum

It’s comforting to me that the subjects of billy woods’s work, more than two decades into his career, are often children—I grew up in Brooklyn, and the memories I have of it from my childhood contain physical attributes and facts that also cannot be confirmed, located, as they are, in so many places that no longer exist. His music seems to show that, deep into the game, your oldest iterations of selfhood are still with you. As for his visibility, by the end of a woods album, you feel he’s given up so much that you have to respect his keeping something all his own. I don’t know what billy woods looks like, but I know who he is in some important ways; they’re the same ways I can know myself without looking in a mirror.

—Owen Park, intern