Nashville duo, The Harmaleighs have undergone something of a transformation since their 2015 debut album, Pretty Picture, Dirty Brush. Unsurprisingly, back then, the songs of Haley Grant and Kaylee Jasperson were of the wholesome, rocking-chair-and-patchwork-quilt variety of country music. Listening again now to their lyrics, however, and slithers of darkness were evident, even then. Second album, She Won’t Make Sense is entirely different; a rockier (in all senses), emotionally intense exposition of Grant’s own struggles with mental illness, it still beats with a gentle Country heart.
For a collection of songs with so much vulnerability, She Won’t Make Sense slips effortlessly into your day, like a familiar go-to record. The juxtaposition of dark and light, of musical cheerfulness and mental pain, is the first thing you notice here. The second is a sense of needing to detach from the world, as if we’re watching a separation between two people. All that falls into place as opener, ‘Anthem For The Weak‘, introduces us to the central character “Susan”, the name that Grant gave to her anxieties. “The whole album is me talking to Susan or Susan acting on my behalf. She talks so much and sometimes it’s like hearing your favourite song. She’s so easy to tune into even though she can be so toxic” says Grant. Aptly the song is sombre and reflective, swaying in resignation to a woozy blue synth and gently paced rhythm.
Lead single, ‘Sorry I’m Busy‘ is a surprisingly squally follow up. With its indie-rock leanings doubling up on tempo and fake smiles, the song feels dangerously close to collapsing in on its own positivity: “Now that I can barely breathe / Let’s talk all about me / Oh I’m doing great, just great, just great.” Throughout the writing of the album, Grant says she wanted the listener to feel a sense of anxiety, and that is most felt in this uneven flow between tracks, as if anything could happen next. It also creates a closer connection to Grant’s telling of what’s going on, so that we become complicit in the unfolding drama that ‘Susan’ precipitates.
Where The Harmaleighs really hit hard is in their exploration of the loss of self, specifically the sense of losing the part of you that makes creativity possible. Each song here burns brightly with those complex and all-consuming thoughts, even when things seem fine on the surface. For example, ‘Talk‘ and ‘Tidy Up‘, trade their beautiful vocal airiness for self-defeat and loathing, while ‘Mannequin‘ gracefully waltzes its way into oblivion. In this sense “Susan” is both antagonist and protagonist, the essential spark and the devastating fire.
‘Don’t Panic‘ oozes radio-friendly, nostalgic warmth, with Dan Molad‘s retro production almost overdoing the sepia-stained backdrop for Grant’s voice. Once again her words reflect a different story to the one the melody would have us believe: “I’m biting my nails until they bleed / As I watch my love sleep comfortably / Does she know I’m slowly poisoning?” Grant wrote ‘Don’t Panic’ in the bathroom at 3:30am, as she questioned whether or not she should be seeking help with her anxieties, or let them run their course because they enabled the songs that she is, now, so proud of. “The last line of the chorus, ‘but what if that’s all I’m good at’ comes from me being scared I’ll be unable to write if I am mentally stable…”
The most difficult questions are the ones we can’t bear to ask ourselves, because we know that the answer implies us having to give up, or give in to something. It’s easier to live in ignorance than it is to know something for which we will have to take responsibility. With all that insight, closer ‘I Don’t Know Myself‘ trembles magnificently. Grant’s passionate plea to herself is felt in each breathless vocal and weeping string refrain as she tumbles towards a realisation she can no longer deny:
“How can I occupy
A space that frequently denies
She Won’t make Sense is a wonderfully complicated, powerfully intimate record that disarms with its breeziness, while it breaks your heart.
‘She Won’t Make Sense’ is out now on Nettwerk Records.