Stella Donnelly – Seasons Greetings
Every color now is shining through…
This simple, rather bubbly lyric should be the antithesis of a record unequivocally steeped in a milieu of devastating loss, grief, depression and anxiety. But after probably-too-many late night deep dives into Richard Swift’s posthumous masterpiece, The Hex, these are the very words that carousel round and round your skull. It comes tucked at the tail end of the ironically jaunty and buoyant “Dirty Jim,” a song about substance abuse; the lies you tell yourself in its grip; and the loved ones you hurt along the way. The line is a flash of hope and beauty and levity. Swift believed in and sought real beauty. And so, even at its most caustic and sardonic, The Hex is beautiful. Swift’s palette in life and art was almost always greyscale. But here we are, with this swan song with which to remember him. And every color now is shining through.
Don’t you believe Richard Swift ever really felt sorry for himself or believed he was the sole recipient of some unforgiving Hex. He was too smart for that sort of self-pity. In Swift’s personal vernacular, The Hex is the grand folly of all human existence — that we have to lose all the people we love; that we feign control while sailing toward calamity; that we, in all likelihood, are spinning alone in an endless universe. First your good looks go. Then your dexterity. Then your parents. Then, you’re up to bat and Death is on the mound with his monster 12-6 curveball. As Swift often wrote, Even your drums will die. That is The Hex. Since his passing in early July, many who worked with him have reflected on his use of the phrase “too easy” in recording sessions at his National Freedom studio. Yes, he said this often because his first-thought-best-thought ethos and absolute studio wizardry had an effortlessness to them. But he also wielded this tagline liberally because life is not “too easy.” In fact, it’s just too fucking hard and every second is a battle I fought. You can almost see Swift’s wicked grin as he whispers “the hex, the hex, the hex” on the album’s titular, opening track. Conceived in pieces over the last several years and finalized just the month before his passing, The Hex is the grand statement Swift acolytes have been a-wishin-and-a-hopin’ for all these years. After a career of sticking some of his finest songs on EPs and 45s, here are all his powers coalescing into a single, long-player statement. At its core, The Hex is an aching call out into the void for Swift’s mother (“Wendy”) and his sister (“Sister Song”) whom he lost in back-to-back years. You hear a man at his lowest and spiritually on his heels. The pain fueling Swift’s cries of “She’s never comin’ back” on the absolutely gutting standout “Nancy” is some sort of dark catharsis for anyone who’s ever lost a loved one to the cold abstraction of Death. Over a slow, Wall of Sound kick and a warbling synth, Swift’s cries climb higher-n-higher-n-higher into what may be his most devastating vocal performance on record. A cry of pain so real and so raw Swift had to treat the performance with just a little studio effect, without which the recorded grieving might be too much to bear.
The Hex is presented here as “The Hex For Family and Friends.” His songs are full of nods and references that mean more to those who paid the closest attention to his art; to the phrases on which he fixated; to those who knew him best. Like his visual art hero Ray Johnson, Swift had a gift for creating personal myth, an elusive and captivating inside joke. He turned his anxieties into cartoon characters and cryptic phrases. An obsessive fan of Wall of Sound doo-wop, early Funkadelic, Bo Diddley, Beefheart and Link Wray, Swift gives them all a moment with the flashlight around The Hex campfire, one moment to make a strange shadow-cast face for us, his family and friends. At the end of the day, Swift would rather you soil your pants laughing, than sob through this death record. To this end, he gives us the bombastic, maggot-brained “KENSINGTON!,” a narrative song about a doomed expedition — which might just be the skeleton key to this whole goddamned affair. There are rats and hornets and some unknown enemy out there in the darkness. And you just know there’s no way Kensington and his team are getting out of this thing alive. In the chaos, these ill-fated explorers just start firing. A thick fog of smoke adds to the chaos. Swift is pulling on a jazz apple. He’s belly laughing about the absurdity of making sounds for a living as a way to battle your demons, getting all meta about life, death and music – and where they all just sail off the proverbial cliff together:
A SEQUENCE OF ECHOES, BANG! A SEQUENCE OF ECHOES, BANG!…AND THEN A LONG SILENCE….IT’S GENIUS.
– EO Deines, 8/3/18
Stella Donnelly is delighted to share the video for ‘Season's Greetings, taken from her critically acclaimed debut album Beware of the Dogs, released earlier this year.
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