Album review: Heartworm by Whipping Boy

12 Mar

(Disclaimer: I first wrote this review on the 7th of March over on Rate Your Music. It says pretty much everything I want to say about Heartworm, so I have chosen to reproduce it here with only minor modifications.)

There are times when I wonder how long it will be until I find another band, even another album, or merely just another song that affects me as deeply as my established favourites. I will listen to swathes of new albums, both new releases and old releases new to me, and while I will often come away with the feeling that I have listened to good music, music that I will likely return to in future, I don’t feel inextricably drawn back or particularly moved. A feeling, perhaps even a fear, develops within me that no more music will impact me as deeply as before. I am well aware that from past experience, an album will eventually crop up that completely floors me, but that does not change the sense of disillusionment I feel in the moment. That is how I felt at the start of March 2010.

Then I discovered Heartworm.

It was pure chance. I had never so much as heard of Whipping Boy until a brief mention of them on the Rate Your Music forums. The comments about 1995’s Heartworm, the second of the band’s three albums, sufficiently piqued my curiosity that I made a point of getting my hands on a copy. I didn’t quite expect what I found, though.

Many albums aim to be confessional and to lay bare deep personal emotions and insecurities. I am not sure, however, if I have ever heard another album that achieves this goal quite as successfully as Heartworm. Besides the fact that frontman Fearghal McKee spills litres of blood and tears into the lyrics, what really distinguishes this album is McKee’s exceptional vocal delivery. Every nuance, every undertone, every vocal mannerism occurs in just the right way to provide additional impact. From almost wistful nostalgia underpinned with regret, through disinterest and disdain to morose cynicism, the album weaves together a complex patchwork with a sense of frank desperation. There is never a moment that feels forced; it flows out of McKee with no abandon. If the lyrics are not in fact autobiographical, then McKee is a master of characterisation, perceptive and sympathetic.

The lyrics are often dense, or if direct, heavy on content and twisted by McKee’s delivery. What makes Heartworm all the more remarkable is the way the lyrics are paired with the music. It is perhaps unfair to focus so heavily on McKee, because his bandmates are just as central to this album. The music and lyrics are effectively interwoven, and mutually sustain each other, providing added intensity and highlighting key moments. While the music is well-grounded in alternative rock, it draws on more shoegazy sensibilities and guitar tones to furnish the lyrics with an added atmosphere. The musical and lyrical pairing is all the more exceptional when you realise how atypically structured some of the lyrics are, yet how the music often adopts more conventional styles of songwriting. Not once do they diverge or feel poorly coupled; the two are always meshed with a single purpose.

Special mention must be made of We Don’t Need Nobody Else. This track is, more than any other, the most personally affecting and discomforting for me. It is the essence of Heartworm. McKee begins the song with a spoken word style, playing with words and philosophies in something of a weary or disillusioned way before abruptly, but with the utmost indifference, informing the listener that “I hit you for the first time today”. It is followed by explanation without justification and an acknowledgement that nothing will be the same; an acknowledgement that reveals the dark undertones of the song’s title. The music gets heavier, McKee’s perfectly paced delivery morphs from spoken word to cynical singing, and this tale of domestic violence builds to a conclusion of sheer despondency.

This is the sort of album that spirals downward, dragging you along for the ride deep into a darkened corner of the human psyche. Other listeners bemoan the lack of success or public awareness of Whipping Boy, but in a way I can understand why the band struggled to achieve fame – this sort of content, so affecting and personal, is not suited to mass consumption or to being whored across radio airwaves to apathetic listeners driving home from work who just want a hook. It does not appeal to a lowest common denominator. It doesn’t even attempt to. It is a series of observations presented honestly (see especially the frank closing track, A Natural); you can take it or leave it.

4.5/5.

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