The new album from cellist/singer/songwriter, Unwoman, was released late last month. I got it a few weeks early for backing the Kickstarter, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since the download showed up in my inbox. A few months earlier I wrote a piece plugging the album’s Kickstarter campaign. I had a lot to say about the qualities that make Unwoman (Erica Mulkey) a quintessential steampunk artist, transcending the purely aesthetic trappings of the genre.
The things I wrote about Unwoman then (anachronisms juxtaposed with the DIY ethos of the digital music landscape) continue to apply to her latest record, Circling. However, something I was trying to do in that piece was to define steampunk music in a way that was distinct from, yet consistent with, steampunk literature. Ironically, after many repeat listenings of Circling, I am struck by how much of the power of Unwoman’s music can be located in her talent for storytelling.
Ok, maybe storytelling isn’t exactly the right word – it implies a beginning, middle, and end, flowing along something resembling a linear narrative. As the album title suggests, Unwoman is rarely interested in the resolution, but instead focuses on characters caught in those tantalizing circles of uncertainty.
Take, for example, the hypnotically baroque “I could have killed the king.” The song takes the point of view of a would be assassin, who instead of murdering the king, has become his mistress. The lyrics take the form of the protagonist’s internal struggle to reconcile the promise of a life of leisure with her compromised values: “but our hope that this kingdom / could have been all of ours seems a delusion / and to be a royal concubine may be my best option / he covers me with kisses, tells me what a lucky girl I am / to use my only power to destroy / or to be power’s toy.”
In contrast to Unwoman’s previous record, The Fires I started, which was characterized by abrupt percussive anthems, the compositions on Circling tend towards winding melodies that rise and fall, echoing the protagonists’ indecisive and often paradoxical dilemmas. The result is a tangible sense not only of character, but also setting and atmosphere. So rather than storytelling, let’s call it world building, not a perfect description of what Unwoman does, but I think it captures much of the effect. No matter how finite the space of the song, we get glimpses and suggestions of the larger world its subjects inhabit, and we are compelled to continue building on those glimpses long after each track has ended.
Unwoman seems to play with this idea herself in the lyrics of “In Pinks and Golds.” The song describes a performer locked in a metaphorical dance with a member of her audience, repeating it night after night. The performer, lonely in her sea of admirers, is trapped by her addiction to the spotlight, and her infatuation with the one audience member who does not lavish her with gifts and praise.
She addresses him in the song: “you know the stories behind my words / you know the stories behind my cues,” the lyrics themselves acknowledge that their words only describe a snapshot of the story contained within, and encourage the listener to search for the rest.
Sometimes only the slightest hint of a setting or a theme within a lyric is enough to imbue the compositions with the suggestion of a vivid fictional world. “Long, Long, Shadows,” evokes a bleakly beautiful landscape of a land of “sunlight” “echoes” and “regrets.” The only way I can describe it is as the theme song to my favorite western that’s never been made.
This quality of rich visual and emotional world building can be found in most of the songs on this record, to greater or lesser degrees, and explains why it stands up so well to many, many listenings. it’s one of the things Unwoman does best, but its far from the only thing she does well.
Another standout track that takes an altogether different approach is “Specimen.” This song, a scathing and personal critique of the male gaze, is more explicitly subversive than many of the tracks. Rather than using fictional characters, Unwoman addresses the audience directly, using taxidermy as a metaphor for the casual objectification of women in society. In a departure from the meandering aesthetic of the record, “Specimen” is written with a direct and incisive lyrical style that channels Eve Libertine of Crass, in all of its indignant glory.
You can download this record, and all of Unwoman’s others, here, but be warned, you won’t listen to much else once you do.