…I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence
Oed’ und leer das meer.
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land“
Among the Tarot deck, a man hangs by his feet from a living tree. He is not dead, but entranced—poised in perfect self suspension—having lost sight of the world and his place in it, but on the verge of a great awakening. Throughout history, the hanged man has been associated with figures spanning many mythological traditions, but in Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s Penelope (namely in the texts by playwright Ellen McLaughlin), he is called Odysseus, returned home from an unnamed war with no recollection of himself or the life he had.
By all expectations, a song cycle derived from a hero story like Homer’s Odyssey ought to be reasonably straightforward. But Penelope (New Amsterdam Records) is more than just a hero story. Our Odysseus is not simply meandering home following a successful campaign against the Trojans. He is a stranger returned home from half a lifetime spent in an unnamed war. He has left himself and his memories on the battlefield. He is Odysseus not by nature, but because he is no one. And it has fallen to Penelope to lead him back to the man he was and rediscover that ineffable self lost in half a lifetime at war.
And there to guide us through a sea of undulating strings and a landscape littered with shards of Glass and the ghosts of myriad musical touchstones are Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman. From the very opening of “The Stranger With the Face of a Man I Loved”, waves of strings lap upon the shore below as the return of her husband forces Penelope to recall the good along with bad (In this house / Where the best of our times / I try to remember / And the rest of the time / I try to forget) until coming to the conclusion in “This Is What You’re Like”—a track that would be equally at home on a My Brightest Diamond record as it is here—that I’d give a lot to hear him / Tell me lies like that again. Settling once and for all her resolve to bring him back over hints of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt in “Nausicaa”:
You look so lost, Stranger. / But you’re not lost / ‘Cause I’ve just found you, Penelope sings. Just take my hand, Stranger. /…And I will lead you home.
Our Odysseus never speaks but through his Penelope, his first utterance dangling among the trip hop imagery of “Circe and the Hanged Man”: a metaphor made all the more sensual by Shara Worden’s innate sense of innuendo (before Penelope, I never realized the word “luxuriating” tastes like chocolate covered strawberries). As Penelope continues to read to her husband, bits of his past emerge and retreat into the fog of his psyche until it all comes to a head in “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets”, when Odysseus is made to gaze upon himself through the window of Penelope’s stories. For Odysseus, the trauma of being known—the sight of himself as he is—is overwhelming. Save me from you, we hear him say (through Penelope). Sweep me some place you can’t see / (Hide me some place) / I am known here. And with that, the Hanged Man Odysseus’ eyes are opened onto a vision of himself.
A.E. Waite, designer of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, wrote of The Hanged Man: “He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded [sic] in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection”. While for Penelope’s Odysseus the truth of his past and journey home haunts him, the journey through Penelope—achingly stark, sparse, swaying, and soaring—begs repeated listening with an attentive ear. The way hints of Radiohead and David Lang materialize and mingle with St. Vincent and Chopin only to be reabsorbed into an aural landscape that is uniquely—ineffably—the voice of Sarah Kirkland Snider, results in what is easily the most beautiful album of the year. And that, my friends, is a great awakening.
Watch my twinterview with Sarah Kirkland Snider below.