It was January 2007 and I needed a new band to grow up with. Having returned to Philly from Sleater-Kinney’s “last” show in Portland, OR only five months previously, I was now left with a new (in name, at least) queerness and a reimagined feminism, minus the band (and the fans) from whom I had gotten both. While I quickly found a new musical space for exploring queerness via the music of Holly Miranda, I was left with a burning hole for a band that could shine a light for the feminist way forward. Mid-month, I saw a headline on Brooklyn Vegan, my favorite music blog, that immediately piqued my interest: “Land of Talk sign to the Rebel Group.” Pictured was a three-piece band: a lanky drummer behind his drum kit (Bucky Wheaton), a bent-over bassist holding his bass with his left hand and playing a keyboard with his right one (Chris McCarron), and a guitarist with their head cocked back as their hands slide up the upper frets (Elizabeth Powell). When I click on the post, the author tells me that the group released one of the blog’s favorite EP’s of 2006, Applause Cheer Boo Hiss. Still intrigued, I go and download the album illegally (I will legally purchase it later). As I hit play in iTunes, I am greeted with the opening guitar riff of “Speak to Me Bones.” The first three times, the riff enters at the start of every eighth count, the drums and bass keeping the time as it builds up the suspense. On the fourth riff, the guitar comes through on the fourth count as well—before running through the four-riff spread all over again. Where was this song—and this band—going? I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out.
Never before had I been left in such suspense by the first 25 seconds of a song. After a drum fill, all the instruments explode, the guitar building up the sonic space before Elizabeth Powell finally comes in to sing, “Hold aloft/ Crystal glass/ Light hits/ Breaks your face apart” at 54 seconds in. These words are lyrically vague yet affectively specific, telling the story of the feelings of unwanted (male) (sexual) attention. But by the time Powell reaches the chorus, the message is clearer: “Holy God/ We are just bags of blood/ Stop hitting on girls you love/ Stop spitting on girls you love.” The song roars through another verse before Powell returns to the chorus to sing it with an even higher intensity than before, the emotionality of their voice practically ripping through the song. The song then makes a quick switch to a bridge that ends up also being the outro, that includes some of my favorite LOT lyrics in “Not every girl is a nail/ You’re not a hammer.” At this point in the song, it is clear to me that this is not Sleater-Kinney singing, “Will there always be concerts where women are raped?/ Watch me make up my mind instead of my face,” as they do on “#1 Must Have.” The words are not as direct or politically explicit because most of life doesn’t actually occur this way. As affect theory tells us, so much of life—including our “politics” and “citizenship”—is lived in the realm of the affective, or of feelings for which we cannot always easily find the words. Land of Talk captures this from this first song onward, particularly when Powell moves to sing-screaming, “So what about what about what about right now right now?” four times over to close out the song. The lyric is a riff on Fugazi’s “Smallpox Champion,” where Guy Picciotto scream-sings, “This is the pattern designed to take you right out/ Right out, right out, right out, right out, right out.” Similar yet different to how Le Tigre riffs on Fugazi on “What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes?,” Land of Talk embodies anger without any of its righteousness, in the emotive form for which women are so often criticized.
In a January 16th post on Facebook, Powell writes, “Fugazi’s Smallpox Champion is basically a bone in my body at this point.” On a recent bike ride, I similarly thought to myself, “‘Speak to Me Bones’—and Applause Cheer Boo Hiss as a whole—is absorbed into my bones at this point.” Looking back at it now, I know this is just as much the result of experiencing the band live for the first time that April as it was playing the EP on repeat for the three months before that. On April 4, 2007, I drove up from Philly to attend Land of Talk’s first headlining show in America at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ. I was one of ten people there including the sound person and bartender. While it was great to at last experience them live, the band seemed dejected at the lack of audience and ended up cutting their set short. When I went to introduce myself to Powell afterward, they were incredulous that I had driven two hours just to see the show (and apparently shouted me out as the girl who had come “‘all the way out from Philly’” at their show at Mercury Lounge the following night). They told me that the band would be playing a show at Swarthmore, a liberal arts college in the Philly suburbs, and invited me to come to what they promised would be a better set. When I asked how I would get in, they replied, “We’ll say you’re my cousin!” From that point onward, this became a running joke, with Lizzie introducing me to whoever we were hanging around with before or after the show (which, on one epic occasion, included Justin Vernon and a huge takeout container of hummus) with, “This is my cousin Christine Capetola! All those family pictures…” In the early days of Land of Talk, Powell was extremely generous with their time at and away from the shows, which meant a lot to me as someone in her early 20s who was suffering from an anxious loneliness that made it hard for me to connect with people my age. At 6-7 years older than me, Lizzie helped me get through that period of my life in more ways than I’ll ever be able to articulate. In more than a few extended post-show conversations and email exchanges, they helped me find my strength within.
By the time Land of Talk’s next album, Some Are Lakes, was released, I was six months into my first meaningful romantic relationship, let alone my first official relationship with a woman. If Austra’s Feel It Break ultimately became the album with which I exited the relationship, then Some Are Lakes was the soundtrack for the only time in my life when being in something more traditional and homonormative seemed like it might be enough. As with Holly Miranda’s The Magician’s Private Library, the album was additionally special for me since I had listened to Land of Talk play most of the album live during the year leading up to its release. At this point, my communications with Powell were starting to wane somewhat, due to both my being very focused on the relationship and their (necessarily) taking some more space from fans as the band continued to grow in popularity. But nevertheless, the moments of connectivity still continued. In breaks between songs at shows, I’d yell for “‘Death By Fire,’ extended version!,” an inside joke about a version of the song that the band had performed at the City Sol festival in NYC during summer 2007. And during one of the last times I had a lengthy conversation with Powell when they were working the merch table at the Stars show at the First Unitarian Church (upstairs) in Philly in June 2010, we geeked out about how excited we were for the upcoming release of The Magician’s Private Library (I remember Lizzie saying to me, “I have the demo and I’ve already listened to it like 600 times”). When I spotted them tucked away in a corner before the start of LOT’s “reunion” show at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn in May 2016, they exclaimed, “Oh my God!” as they saw me again for the first time in six years. We hugged, briefly caught up, and then I joyously experienced one of my favorite bands back in action.
More than just Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, Land of Talk feels like a part of my bones at this point.
In Land of Talk’s discography, the world is always in at least emotional crisis. Friends circle in and out, lovers betray and hurt one another, and sexism and its many violences haunt the world outside—and seep inward into interpersonal relationships, never mind the relationship with one’s self. The lyrics are often blurry because the narratives are often blurry, as individuals struggle to manifest their desires in fully legible ways and people (unintentionally or not) cross one another’s lines out of a lack of emotional attunement or sensitivity. This emotional messiness has always been a theme for the band, although its affectivity began to crystalize most fully on Life After Youth, their third LP released in May 2017. I remember having “Inner Lover” on spin a lot during the summer of 2017. Although I was in a relationship with probably the kindest and most emotionally generous person I’ve ever dated, I had been in a moment of ongoing crisis since mid-July, when I learned how much this girlfriend in Austin felt intimidated by both my intellect and emotional intelligence. “Inner Lover” captures how much you can simultaneously experience love and disconnection from someone, can feel alone even while with someone. The song begins with a beautiful, throbbing synth chord and what sounds like a reverbed guitar string plucked in beat with it. Powell’s voice soon enters the song like a whisper, soothing in how it holds disappointment and faint hopefulness (another trademark of LOT songs) together. After they utter the line “Feeling here is free” at the end of the double first verse, the instruments come back in in full force so they can sing a chorus of “You light it slowly/ Your light is lonely/ You light it slowly/ Your light is lonely/ You light it slowly/ On me.” The “you” here is weighty, both a recognition of love and its simultaneous disconnect. By October, it would be my soundtrack to leave this romantic partner behind.
Whenever I listen to Land of Talk, everyone that I’ve ever loved deeply comes to mind, a reminder of how even in loss, the people we love become—and stay—a part of us. I remember putting “Some Are Lakes” on a mixtape for my first girlfriend right before we broke up, knowing that the song embodied how I had once felt about the relationship (like it would last forever, like it would be enough for the rest of my life)—and was trying to hold onto even as that feeling was quickly slipping away. A seemingly straight-forward song that centers Powell’s acoustic guitar and voice, “Some Are Lakes” tells the story of how “What started at a summer lake/ A sentence and her name” became their parents’ everlasting love. It’s a love that many of us have at some point wished for, before realizing that we can’t possibly hold it. Although I’ve blocked a lot of that first relationship out of my memory at this point, I loved that girlfriend very much while we were dating—and it was only when she wanted to have a conversation about moving towards marriage that I fully realized the many ways in which we had become incompatible as partners. To be 23 and have my partner want to talk about marriage with me was absolutely terrifying, both because I fundamentally didn’t (still don’t) believe in marriage as an institution and because I saw it as incompatible with my dreams of going to grad school to continue studying gender & sexuality studies and one day becoming a professor. When I listen to “Some Are Lakes” now, I hear the story of an unadulterated love that once seemed possible, at a very particular moment in my early 20s. While I’ve certainly felt the feeling of “And I’ll love you like I love you/ Then I’ll die” for other women since, it’s always been accompanied by the expectation that it’s unlikely that me—or really most people I know, for that matter—will only date one person for the rest of my life.
“It’s Okay,” meanwhile, would be the soundtrack for my next relationship with a girlfriend in Brooklyn that I loved quickly and deeply. While the relationship only lasted for the fall semester, it changed me forever, both in terms of bringing me into the power that I would need to begin grad school in a blaze that summer and realizing what love could feel like when everything seemed to intellectually, physically, and emotionally connect (a connectivity I wouldn’t feel again until four years later). In our period of long distance pseudo-seeing one another again during the 2015-2016 school year, I met up with my ex, who had landed an assistant professor gig on the East Coast, at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn in May 2016 to see the first of Land of Talk’s reunion shows. Having fallen off her bike on the way over to the show, she was late for our meetup and would leave two songs into LOT’s set to go lay down and rest. After quickly kissing me goodbye, she walked out of my life for a second time—and this time I let her go without a love letter chronicling my emotional pain. I would listen to “It’s Okay,” a song that had once been our song, alone during the encore. When I had walked away from her at the end of 2012 (which at the time had felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life), I immediately plummeted into a deep depression on account of the breakup and feeling generally unhappy with my pre-grad school life. “It’s okay/ I don’t even cry/ All I think about is the memory,” Powell sings at the beginning of the song over a slow build drum beat, faint bass line, and occasional strum on the guitar. In retrospect, “It’s Okay” is a morbid choice for a song to describe a relationship, as it foreshadows how “Goodbyes are hard.” When this ex and I would say hello—and then goodbye again—over dinner when she was in town last September, it was the first time that she had ever seen me not depressed. “I’m really glad to see you doing well,” she would say at the end of the night, words that were more than just a mere pleasant good-bye.
As I would learn through both Land of Talk’s songs and these experiences, life was an endless possibility for love. In a May 2016 blog post, I had this to say about how love works in Land of Talk songs, particularly at one moment in their Baby’s All Right show: “Three songs into the set, Land of Talk performed a new song called ‘Spirit’ (or maybe ‘Spiritual’?). The most repeated line in the song is a poignant one: ‘How you gonna live if you can’t love?’ Thematically, while many Land of Talk songs have been about romantic relationships (‘Got A Call’ is possibly the most heart wrenching one), they have also written songs about friendship and fucking (‘All My Friends’), and about being broke creatives (‘Sea Foam’). Love in Land of Talk songs is an expansive canvas on which to navigate the always swinging pendulum of connectivity and isolation. Sometimes words are inadequate; sometimes sounds can express feelings the way that words cannot. Land of Talk’s guitar-bass-drums format has always worked well for this, interweaving—and at times accentuating—Powell’s vocals. At two minutes into the song, Powell drags out their vocal delivery of a word that’s indecipherable from the recording (although Powell, like Austra’s Katie Stelmanis, seems to be a songwriter who writes as much for how words sound as they do for lyrical content—so perhaps this is intentional). At 3:33, the instruments begin to layer on top of one another; it is here that the effect of having a second guitar and more bass via the keyboards/synths is felt. The sounds keep building, building, building on one another until the drums bring the song to a crashing halt. There is no clear love object in ‘Spirit,’ leaving it open to interpretation. How you gonna live if you can’t love someone or something or (most especially) yourself?”
It is now only that it’s four years later—and I’ve loved four people romantically in that time—that I fully understand what this means.
On February 25th, Land of Talk released “Weight of That Weekend,” the first single from the band’s upcoming album Indistinct Conversations. While I was out parading in the streets for Mardi Gras and about to sexually connect with someone to whom I had felt drawn for an entire year, Powell released a heavy track with an even heavier press release. As they write, “I was so sick of carrying all this weight that wasn’t mine to bear. So sick of being owned by all of this… I grew so sick of suffering and being slowed-down by this weight. The song is a prayer for a lightness of being. A prayer for capital ‘L’ Love.” When I put the song on the next day, it momentarily shook me out of the giddy sex high that I would soon return to and remain in for the next few weeks, until COVID hit. After beginning with a few quick guitar strums, Powell forcefully sings, “Always coming at me from a different angle/ Making me think I don’t understand/ How I’m feeling/ Till the feeling that I get out of hand.” God, on how many registers these lines immediately resonated. As someone who was told by my parents—and then multiple future romantic partners—that I was “too emotional,” Powell didn’t need to say any more for me to surmise where they were going. Listening to this song on February 26th, what struck me most was how Powell ends the song with the lines: “This is a prayer for love/ This is a prayer for love/ Cause I’m not sleeping.” Somehow, we keep giving and giving, no matter how many times we’ve been disappointed in sex and/or in love. Somehow, we keep opening up, believing that we will be met in our vulnerability. And, somehow, we emotionally take and take on until the figurative weight literally crushes us. And then we do it all over again. Where “Speak to Me Bones” is the fuck off, “Weight of That Weekend” is the examination of the emotional and psychic costs of when we feel that our lines have been crossed.
In the early days of COVID dating, the weekend became our sanctuary. We were going to shelter in place with one another; we were going to ride this thing out together; for once we wouldn’t have to feel so alone during a moment of crisis. There are many happy memories from those weekends that feel hard to access now, as I slowly crawl my way out of the anger and sadness around the way that things ended. It was an early weekend in June, a late night break up phone conversation on a Saturday night that spilled into more talking in person that Sunday late afternoon/early evening. We got a glimpse of what we were about to give up—and then the weight of just how different our realities of the situation had become. When I close my eyes, I sometimes still slip back into that pain, even though it’s now, somehow, nearly two months later. The weight of that weekend is that it wasn’t just about that weekend at all, which I knew as I was curled in a ball and having a panic attack on the floor of this lover—or was it that of my ex-partner from one year ago? The weight of that weekend was the accumulation of two years of dating in a place where I’ve constantly felt unchosen, where I have constantly felt in comparison to someone else who’s presented as more sexually and/or emotionally desirable than me. But the weight of that weekend is also lifelong, of not sensing even the possibility for reciprocal emotional love until my best friend walked into the locker room wearing a Weezer t-shirt after track & field practice during my freshman spring semester (I was 18 years old). So I’m on this floor, trying to not be too hard on myself about how 5.5 years of therapy is supposed to have helped me not fall back into this place, where I feel like I’m the only person in the world and no one else can possibly reach me. I know in that moment that it will take months to climb out of and heal from this, that I won’t even let myself consider the possibility of even meeting someone new until I can get to a place where I can stop feeling so undesirable and unloveable, never mind like I’m too much for everyone, all of the time. The weight of that weekend is how the people we love can play with our emotional vulnerabilities to the point of rendering us powerless.
As an album, Indistinct Conversations operates in the space of these anxieties, of the ghosts that swarm the scene as the communication in the present breaks down. “Get lost in a dream/ Now we can’t escape it/ Know this ice water was once warm/ My baby, she don’t wanna know me/ Yeah, my baby, she don’t wanna know me now,” Powell sings over crunchy turned melodic guitar strumming, plucky bass lines from McCarron, and a steady drum beat from Wheaton on “Footnotes.” People fall in love with dreams all the time; more so, people fall in love with the versions of ourselves that we present when we first connect all the time. On “Footnotes,” the dream overdetermines the present, leaving no room for when people’s desires for closeness—or distance—emerge more clearly. Amidst conflicting dating styles and modes of anxiety, things at some point become unreciprocal, with the person who wants less almost always determining the future course of action. The other person tries to adjust but she realizes that she’s giving up her desires in the process, that close to nothing feels on her terms anymore. It’s a power struggle that can only end when the sex/romance (it becomes hard for me to separate these two things after enough times) also ends. This back and forth carries throughout Indistinct Conversations, from Powell singing “I can’t do this with you/ And I can’t do this without you” alongside sharp, start and stop, windy guitar on “Look to You” to their declaring “I’m your future lover/ There’s me, there’s no one else” over the mid-90s alt/indie guitar-bass-drums of “A/B Futures.” Listening to the entire album in full for the first time on a Thursday morning, I am taken aback by how many snippets of past conversations with lovers that I hear in the album’s words, affects, and instrumentations. This is what anxiety is, after all: the accumulation of past memories and anticipated futures in your present, snowballing into something that it feels like you can never seem to completely escape. Yet by the end of the album, I feel the opposite of hopeless. Instead, I feel an emotional and bodily call to healing, to standing up to the anxiety.
On the night of the breakup phone call, the person I called immediately after was a friend that I briefly dated, after a period of first getting to know one another first as friends. Of the handful of people I’ve stayed friends or friendly with after periods of dating or sleeping together, she is the only one who has become a close friend, the only one that I would quite literally trust with my life. As someone who has watched me emotionally grow into myself over the course of the past eight years, I knew that she would be able to hold me and my feelings in this moment, even across time zones and through a figurative telephone wire. I was absolutely distraught over the phone, devastated that it was over but also incensed beyond belief about all I had not felt seen or heard on. My friend listened for an hour that night and another hour after I got home the following evening. She checked in on me daily for the rest of the week and then sent me an early birthday card signed with “Love,” a word backed up by an action. In holding this space for me to grieve and be angry, she helped me come back to the emotional person that I had tried to bury during my past two years of nonstop dating. It’s amazing how much we can come back to ourselves in what seems like moments of unbearable hurt and pain. I’ve struggled my entire life (this is no exaggeration) to not view my emotionality as something that pushes people away from me, to actually see it as one of the most defining and beautiful characteristics of myself. I will likely deal with the anxiety from this trauma for the rest of my life. On these two nights, calling this friend saved me. And as I’m continuing to heal from this, Indistinct Conversations is helping me to keep saving myself.
The morning after listening to the album for the first time, I woke up and told myself “I deserve love” for the first time in a long time. And I believed it.
I have a mismemory about sitting on the stage and chatting with Lizzie after a LOT show at the Mercury Lounge. In my memory, it’s from November 2011, after I broke up with my first partner and had already moved back to NYC. But looking at the ticket stub tells me it’s actually from November 2009, not 2011. Nevertheless, I remember feeling very seen in that conversation. I had been going to see Land of Talk play for 2.5 years at that point—and was arguably at the height of my romanticism, especially as things were at a high point with my first partner. I felt in love with life, love, my friends, and my studies. Of all the artists I listened to during my early 20s, Land of Talk—and specifically Lizzie—were the first to tell me that it was okay to be romantic, okay to love deeply and with everything that you’ve got. As I wrote in a blog post in June 2016: “Land of Talk have been so important to me because they remind me that people are complex, like the lyrics and sounds of their songs. The way forward does not always appear clear; sometimes it has to be sensed, often through the (always terrifying) flames of intimacy, vulnerability, and emotion. The points of connection can so easily slip into moments of isolation. We have to love anyway because: what are we gonna do if we can’t love? This is where the joy comes from, after all.” Yes, there would be hurt along the way—but there would also be “a little hope,” as Powell sings on “It’s Okay.” And, although I couldn’t see it then, there would also be many moments that resemble the second verse of “Got A Call”: “It’s alone/ And no one knows how to feel/ And I party all the time/ Yeah I know how to kill/ But I hate how it feels/ That everyone’s in love with someone else.” But then the chorus comes back in after. You take your time, you heal, you open yourself up again. As I’ve been listening to Some Are Lakes and crying a lot in my July 2020 present, I have to remind myself that it will, indeed, be okay.
These past three posts have been love letters of sorts to three artists (two of them explicitly queer—and all three of them white women or femmes) who have most shaped me since my early 20s: Holly Miranda, Katie Stelmanis, and Elizabeth Powell. They have also been posts about intimacy, desire, and love, with each piece respectively taking up one of those concepts—and then illustrating how they all, for me, are constantly in conversation with one another. This post is also the end to an unplanned year of writing about music and romance together, beginning with this July 2019 post about the heartbreak of my partner of a year (as I believe (based on what I could infer)) leaving me for someone else. In truth, that relationship was the closest I had gotten to a modified version of what I had had with my first partner in my early 20s, where I seemed to have room to move as an individual while also existing with someone I loved in partnership. We had also put the possibility of an open relationship on the table from the beginning, which helped me to not feel suffocated in the relationship. Although I quickly accepted after the breakup that we were not good partners for one another, the loss of the possibility of that kind of relationship was devastating. I moved through the next year of dating trying to keep my emotions at a distance, until I fell in love with someone new-ish—which ultimately brought me back to wanting emotional intimacy and romantic partnership in a way I had not in a long time. And so now I find myself back at where I was right before I moved to New Orleans in this May 2018 post, hoping for “this little thing called love” about which Karin Dreijer as Fever Ray sings on “Mama’s Hand.” I want sex with the possibility of reciprocated love—and the possibility of primary partnership. As I continue to heal, that probably means not dating anyone at all for some time. Coupled with the loneliness of COVID, this can feel almost soul crushing. But when I listen to Land of Talk, I remember the many permutations in which love can happen—and I don’t feel so alone anymore. Instead, I feel strong with/in myself.