After more than a dozen years of writing, recording, and countless road trips, Heartless Bastards decided to take a break following their 2016 tour. Ironically or coincidentally, the hiatus came after releasing Restless Ones, their timeless fifth album that encouraged everyone to persevere. For front woman Erika Wennerstrom, she stayed mostly low key, occasionally providing background vocals on a handful of songs and showing up at Newport Folk Festival as an attendee. Then in January, we also learned she used the past two years to immerse herself in her debut solo album. Or more accurately, she found redemption, her passion, and herself in the Sweet Unknown.
The record is a towering 57 minutes spanning nine, mostly sprawling epics. It is the most emotional, heartfelt, and encouraging output of Wennerstrom and, by extension, Heartless Bastards. Wennerstrom does not delay in informing us what we’re in for, as Sweet Unknown commences with two majestic, soaring pieces of art that are among the finest songs of 2018. Opener “Twisted Highway” is anthemic in a soul-searching way. The piercing electric guitar and the chest-pounding rhythms create the drama of a midnight escapade. Wennerstrom, meanwhile, is the voice in our head that is helping us find our way through the haze. Through the obstacles that have been littered in our path towards self-acceptance.
“I crack so deep,
Cracks went right down to the bone.
And then I gazed and I was so amazed.
And oh I’ve been so blind,
I could not see what was right in front of me.”
The titanic rocker, “Extraordinary Love”, continues the message of celebrating who we are. As the lightning-struck guitar riff and chest-pounding bass line from Heartless Bastards’ Jesse Ebaugh ring in the background, Wennerstrom reveals her heart and soul to us through her booming voice and forceful lyrics. If “Twisted Highway” is the journey, then “Extraordinary Love” is her re-emergence. Her resurrection.
“Always and always in such a haste
And my head would spin inside and blowing.
Oh, it was so hard for me to see.
Oh and now I’m searching for a place to feel like home.
A place where I could breathe,
And all that I found that I need is to slow down
And then it was so clear for me to see.”
Peace and calm settles in for Wennerstrom on the Cowboys Junkies-like “Time”. With an upbeat tempo and the stirring touches of the strings, the Austin-based singer-songwriter reveals her clarity to us. She emphatically exclaims, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I’m living on”. The somber “Be Good To Yourself” has an air of Chris Isaak, and it is a gentle message to shut out the noise that seeks to weaken us.
Whereas most of the songs on Sweet Unknown describe an endless journey, Wennerstrom momentarily stops time on the brooding and beautiful “Staring Out The Window”. With touches of Neil Young and Lucinda Williams, she describes the experience of looking out into the world as a means to look inward. The people, the places, and the objects with which we surround ourselves are what define us. On “Like A Bird”, however, Wennerstrom opens herself to other possibilities. Her words are a recognition that self-acceptance also requires breaking down the walls and, thus, “open(ing) up to let the good things come”.
Her stories, though, are not restricted to herself. She shares them with us and encourages us to share ours with her, as revealed on “Letting Go”. This toe-tapping, country-infused folk-rock number is perfect for the campfire, where all those within listening distance can collectively share the warmth of Wennerstrom’s words.
“Come along with me my friends.
It doesn’t matter where you’ve been.
We’ve all got shadows in the sun.
A simple thought to ease your mind.”
There is, however, another line in this song that captures the spirit and beauty of her debut LP. Midway through the track, Wennerstrom beams, “Let your heart guide you to be free”. It’s a reminder that strength starts from within and that we must believe and accept who we are first. Only then can we be open to all that awaits for us in the Sweet Unknown. Wennerstrom has shown us the way; now it’s our turn to forge our own paths.
Sweet Unknown is out via Partisan Records, and it is also available on Bandcamp for purchase. Wennerstrom is currently on tour with The Drive-by Truckers and then in April will embark on her own headlining tour. Dates and information are available here.
Featured photo by Linda Beecroft.
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