Although Strand of Oaks’ new album is only nine tracks long, Timothy Showalter manages to cycle through enough emotions to last a lifetime. It makes sense: The singer-songwriter, who resides in Philadelphia, has been through a lot in his life. Showalter has never been one to mince words either; in fact, everything he puts in his songs is literal. On his last record, 2014’s HEAL, Showalter confronted demons like his wife’s infidelity and a near-death experience (a car crash on black ice), going into detail to the point that it’s uncomfortable. Three years later, Showalter finds himself trying to find the balance between his hedonism and how it affects his loved ones. On his fifth record, Hard Love, the singer-songwriter makes an effort to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. At some points, Showalter’s songwriting is so harrowing that you can literally feel his pain. And that makes sense because Showalter only writes what he knows. With the help of producer Nicolas Vernhes, Showalter makes sure that you feel everything he experiences. The duo worked together to bring out the rawness that can be heard in some of music’s most monumental albums, and it’s something they succeed in doing.
Right off the bat, one of the most powerful songs on the record is title track “Hard Love”, which starts out hypnotically honing in on Showalter’s breathy, melancholic vocals, but breaks out into a full-blown noise-rock track. Through the yearning lyrics (“Calling you just to get over here, just to give a damn”), Showalter chronicles his own domestic troubles. It’s a painful plea to find a way to make his marriage work. You can feel Showalter’s marital issues haunting the entirety of Hard Love. The singer-songwriter’s excessive drinking and his wife’s past affair while he was on tour linger in between the lines. While the two may have reconciled, it’s evident that they still have difficulties making their marriage work.
Without a doubt, the standout track on Hard Love is “Cry”, an intimate piano ballad that parallels the beginning of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Brothers in a Hotel Bed” and its despair. While it’s the forlorn climax of the record, Showalter doesn’t wallow in his emotions for too long. Instead, he finds strength in songs like “Radio Kids”, which yearns for the days when there was a great, anthemic hit on the radio, and in the Jim James-esque “Quit It”, where Showalter confronts his indulgences with a raucous chorus revealing an ongoing battle with substances (“Never mind the good times/ Never mind the bad/ Numb it all instead”).
When you think he’s covered it all, Showalter finds transformation in his psychedelic-driven ditties. With “Taking Acid and Talking with My Brother”, he recounts almost losing his brother after he suffered cardiac arrest, and “On the Hill” recalls a drug-induced awakening at the Boogie Festival in Australia. The spacey jams let a bit of light into Showalter’s darkness, but still allow you to feel his angst.
As a follow-up to HEAL, Hard Love finds Showalter maturing — he’s not perfect, and he doesn’t claim to be, but he’s trying. Even though the record is layered in angst, Showalter has an inner fearlessness that has allowed him to take accountability for his actions. While Hard Love isn’t a clear solution for Showalter’s problems, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Essential Tracks: “Hard Love”, “Radio Kids”, and “Cry”