An almost instant calm washes over me every time I put on Aerial East’s Try Harder. It’s not only that she has one of the most naturally soothing and beautiful voices I’ve heard in a long time, but also the very sparse and minimalist instrumentation that exists throughout the album. There is never anything extra. Every element of every song feels necessary and needed. This is never clearer than on album opener and title song ‘Try Harder’, which seems to know that its singer’s voice is its most powerful instrument and is happy to make that the focus. It is a strong opening and one of the more emotional moments on the whole LP. It is particularly pleasing, then, when second track ‘The Things We Build’ continues to put Aerial’s voice at the forefront – but this song is given a more playful and inviting tone by the addition of some simply plucked harp strings and a grungy guitar tone towards the end. So far, so soothing.
But none of that is to say that Try Harder is simply an album to meditate to. If you were to concentrate only on the instrumentation and the tone of the voice, you could definitely use this as background music for a mindfulness class or to lull a weary, work-addled mind into a sense of calm in the evening. But there is more to this album than that. Aerial is also a superb storyteller, and in a song like ‘Katherine’ she can really threaten those tear ducts. This is a song about a once meaningful friendship that has slowly withered and died, and in the simple memories that East evokes, the way she shows how much space this friend used to fill in her life, we should all be able to recall a similar situation from our own pasts. And it is in these kinds of connections that Aerial’s work really soars.
‘San Angelo’ takes a similar wistful approach, looking back at Aerial’s dreams of escape as a teenager and how they apply to her feelings in the current day. I am not aware if these songs were written during lockdown and the pandemic, but either way there is something very ‘now about the way she wishes she could fly away from her current predicament. It is very relatable. ‘Blue’ again connects the past to the present – looking at how the presence of an ex, in your mind if not in reality, haunts the beginnings of a new relationship. It’s hard to know whether ‘Angry Man’ is about the same ex as ‘Blue’ is, but there is a similar feeling here in terms of how Aerial allows herself to admit still clinging to feelings for someone who doesn’t deserve them.
One way of looking at this album as a whole would be to say that it focuses on the struggle to let go, but I think that would be doing Aerial’s words a disservice. This is an album about acceptance. All of the songs about the past offer honest accounts of what she misses and regrets, but they also look forward and talk about muddling through. Couple this with the calming tones of her music and voice, and you have an album that is almost perfect for the way we are living our lives right now. We must all be spending some time going over the past as we look forward to another month (or ten) in our houses, considering the things we miss and the things we don’t, thinking about how things might be different when we can all move forward. If you want an album that is sharing those thoughts, and might help you to sit with them more comfortably, then Try Harder might just be for you.
Words by Fran Slater