Bloodless, Claire Cronin‘s second album for Chicago’s Orindal Records, resumes her fascination with the supernatural and esoteric which 2019’s Big Dread Moon dreamed in big gothic letters.
A writer, painter and poet with a background in performance art, Cronin is an interdisciplinary artist, with music foremost in her creative outlets. Centred mainly around that sparse, twilight sound of slightly distorted, reverb-heavy plucked electric guitar arrangements and Cronin’s world-worn drawl, her songs of suffering continue a long tradition of storytelling heard in the haunted corners of Americana frequented by Jason Molina or Will Oldham. She’s often joined, as here, by creative partner and husband Ezra Buchla, whose viola and baritone guitar adds an aching timelessness and the darker, forbidding tones you associate with this genre. Deerhoof’s John Dieterich also adds his mixing skills and some synth to Bloodless. They last collaborated on 2016’s Came Down A Storm, a crooked American folklore album which evoked a simpler era, when the destructive whims of nature, or man, were revered as the guidance of god’s own hand.
Fear lurked too in Big Dread Moon, creaking and moaning like some liminal, nocturnal threat. But Bloodless’ sorrow is laid bare in full light, and feels multitudes more real, personal and direct. The album’s nine songs take us through waking, altered mental states, like the odd in-between world just before or after sleep, where the bond between body and mind is severed enough to let the darkness, or the light in. The opening title track imagines what its like to leave your body entirely; to be free, painless and immortal. The radioactive guitar buzz on ‘Through The Walls’ wraps itself around us, its slow rhythm increasingly menacing, as Cronin is confronted by a rogue thought, as if it’s a spiritual invasion: “I’m rid of you, I’m rid of you, I’m rid of you Ha, ha, ha, ha!”. ‘I Could Not Let Blood” uses similar themes of possession, wavering between a desire to expiate some assumed evil intent, or holding onto it as though it was some divine gift: ”It was like an eye inside my eye watching from the glass or power lines / What I heard it say, my own design or something higher?” In both songs the terror is real, dyed deep red into the fabric of Cronin’s words, spun then unpicked with trembling realisation in her voice.
While most of the songs were written before the pandemic began, they were all recorded at home and reflect a difficult point in Cronin’s life after she and Buchla had moved into a remote fixer-upper in Berkeley, California. They’d lived there less than a year, when one of the worst wildfire seasons in history began. Then, coronavirus. “I felt trapped and hopeless and terrified” says Cronin, “— of the virus, of the fires, of what was going on in American politics. In some ways, death felt far away — numbers of fatalities on the news — but it was also a constant threat.” The hymn-like lament of ‘No Forcefield’ expresses the fear of losing yourself entirely to this threat: “I am fading in the dark like a picture of the night that’s pressed too far past the outlines”.
Despite this ever-present tension, Bloodless is not entirely foreboding. There are also some gently moving moments, such as ‘Feel This’, a song about struggling to stay present with difficult emotions and relationships. Its frail structure of simple, strummed guitar and twisted ribbons of viola barely holds itself together, before being lifted up by a surge of low synth strings and vocal harmonies. By comparison, ‘Not A Noise’ could be plucked from a ‘90s Hal Hartley movie soundtrack, where the protagonist finally gets their break. The song sparkles in the way obsidian might under a bright light – a light provided here by Cronin’s more sanguine-sounding, unusually upbeat voice. That she doesn’t take herself too seriously is hinted at, briefly, in her wry humour on ‘Now I Don’t Leave’, a song about accepting defeat in the face of overwhelming odds: “In a blur I was wandering / but my passage was foretold / Now I don’t leave, now I don’t leave / Repetition of one danger is my joy / and I am not a joyful singer.”
Scattered in all its layers of beautiful, melancholic rawness and cautionary tales, Bloodless leaves breadcrumbs to find our way out of. The album ends with the words, “No blame, no shame, no sorry”. If there’s a trace of a smile on Cronin’s mouth as she sings that last line, it’s perhaps the relief of giving in to fate. While we continue to push against something stronger than we are, pitting our will against the inevitable, we can’t move on. We remain ‘bloodless’; passionless and trapped between worlds.
‘Bloodless’ is released 12th November via Orindal Records.