“I was born in the middle, maybe too late, everything good had been made,” begins “Shut In,” a mid-album track on Strand Of Oaks’ Heal that sounds like Jim James doing an impression of Bruce Springsteen. The artist behind the project, Tim Showalter, thankfully doesn’t still believe this line. His fifth album as Strand Of Oaks functions as an argument against the idea, citing specific examples of great contemporaries and influences while simultaneously revealing itself to be far beyond good.
Heal’s backstory is intriguing, and so is the way Showalter doesn’t rely on interviews and press releases to convey it. The lyrics are honest and direct, filled with self-deprecating admissions and delivered with the steady hand that can make simplicity sound like poetry. With his love of music tying the songs together (“Goshen 97” shouts out The Smashing Pumpkins and features J Mascis; “JM” is a tribute to the late Songs: Ohia songwriter Jason Molina; the title track riffs on Sharon Van Etten’s “Give Out” while name-dropping The Tallest Man On Earth), Showalter hops from rock genre from song to song in an effort to exercise demons of self-hate, substance abuse, alienation, and heartbreak. It would all be very bleak if the ultimate effect wasn’t catharsis, and if the music wasn’t so jubilant and full of life.
One moment can see Showalter “lose his faith in people” and “just get loaded and never leave the house,” but this is balanced by rock ’n’ roll that is rarely seen so exuberant and emotionally unshackled. Only a person who’s seen how dark things can really get could make something so positive out of a personal nightmare.
Previous Strand Of Oaks albums had settled into a folk niche that is all but abandoned on Heal, with big rock moments basked in without any irony, as if Showalter was the only inhabitant in an alternate dimension where Coldplay was cool. But on “Mirage Year” and “Wait For Love,” Showalter does Coldplay better than Coldplay has in a long time, delivering an invitation into his world through this profoundly affecting work of artistic necessity. Heal might have saved its songwriter’s life in the creation process, and better yet, it sounds like it did.