REVIEW: BRAIDS – Shadow Offering

I have to admit, I did a fairly abrupt about turn on this record. Things that I found frustrating and underwhelming on my first listen struck me as conscious, engaging decisions on my return to it. Maybe I was just in a bad mood on that first encounter or listening with the wrong headphones. Who knows. As I’m writing these words, the record is playing and making a mockery of how wrong I initially was.

Shadow Offering is a restrained, delicately crafted pop record. Although operating within the confines of electropop, you won’t find much in the way of uptempo bangers here. Even songs like ‘Upheaval ii’ stop just short of kicking into top gear, like the players are holding something back. Often the synths and electronic sounds are there to provide texture and nuance to songs, rather than the main hook or melodic focal point. They combine naturally with the more traditional instrumentation in building an expansive, widescreen sonic palette. What the songs lack in immediacy, they more than compensate for with a fully fleshed-out sound for the listener to wallow in.

Tying it all together are singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s vocals – pleading and fragile at points, swelling and determined at others. Lyrically, if this isn’t quite a concept album, it does have a strong thematic core. These are songs about love and relationships, and how those intersect with the way we live our life. Although the songs mostly cover similar ground, they avoid the categorical, line-in-the-sand depictions of relationships so often committed to record. They also mostly steer clear of offering judgements or easy answers. Their appeal lies in their unresolved questions and contradictions.

There are plenty of damaged and finished relationships on display. Also present and correct are the explorations of the power we hold over the ones who love us, and how we can wield it in a way that is supportive or destructive. But the songs rarely present these broken relationships as a question of oppressors and victims. There is a telling moment on ‘Upheaval ii’ where, after acknowledging her repeated pursuit of worthless men, she sings “I’m no saint”. Therein lies the messy truth of relationships and love, and the fact that questions of blame are rarely clear-cut.
Love as something messy and imperfect is further explored on the chorus of ‘Just let me’, with Standell pleading “Just let me get through to you”. It’s tempting to read the line as the powerless plea of someone in thrall to a person who damages them, but the contemplative question “Where did the love go?”, and the image of fighting turning into dancing at the beginning of the song, indicate something different. Whilst undeniably in a far from idyllic relationship, the voice is far too self-aware and reflective to simply be a victim.

If this all sounds downbeat, there are notes of strength and empowerment too. Album opener ‘Here 4 U’ sees the singer looking back, out of a relationship but wanting to support the partner she is no longer with. The closer ‘Note to self’ takes the form of a pep talk, a reminder that despite her ups and downs, she can get through life by putting “one foot in front of the other”.

The songs aren’t just personal in scope. ‘Fear of Men’ explores both the violence that men can bring, and how knowledge and fear of that can be damaging in its own right. The Kate Bush-esque ‘Snow Angel’ has an even wider focus, with the singer scolding herself for her personal worries by contrasting them mockingly with the perilous state of the planet. The social ills listed run slightly into the territory of 6th form social critique, but the metaphor for planetary violence in the line “stab her and watch her bleed” is undeniably effective. The closing line of “Can I get off this ride?” encapsulates her horror and panic at what we have done on and to this world, whilst also showing her coming up short in the search for solutions.

That is the strength of this record. Even at its most rote, going after destructive, capitalist society, it doesn’t absolve her from blame, or divide the world into good or bad. People are depicted in the fullness of their contradictions: the good and the bad they are capable of, the strength and the weakness they display. If you listen to it with a more open mind than I did on my first attempt, there is much to enjoy about it!

Words by Will Collins

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