Heal by Strand of Oaks, Timothy Showalter, is a puree of critically lauded influences. The echoes of painfully honest Joni Mitchell lyrics, soaring Bruce Springsteen choruses, early U2 synth lines and sloppy guitar work courtesy of Pavement or Dinosaur Jr. ring throughout the album.
Although Heal is basically mystery meat made from the grounds of Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. it has been incredibly well-received–and rightly so.
Despite being transparently derivative Heal is an excellent record. The reference points are familiar, but Showalter is successful in injecting the album with intense, personal feeling entirely his own. Heal tapers off toward the end, but its first six songs are some of the best music released this year and would make a remarkable, albeit short, standalone album.
These songs run the gamut from the straight-ahead rock of the album opener , “Goshen ’97” to the emotionally raw 7-and-a-half minute tribute to Jason Molina and his music, “JM”. The album’s first half also describes a variety of emotions and Showalter’s personal battles with substance abuse and self-image, which gives it a striking resonance.
Remarkably, Heal comes across as a very cohesive album even as it hops across decades and genres and crosses emotional hemispheres from adolescent elation to crippling depression. This is largely because a few themes thread themselves across the album. Self-deprecation verging on self-loathing; substance use to both celebrate and medicate; the catharsis of music and its inextricable presence in day-to-day life; and Midwestern ennui are the album’s touchstones.
It is a testament to Showalter’s ability to create enormous, wonderful choruses that Heal is life-affirming and uplifting instead of overbearingly bleak. This is a collection of weary, overtly literary song about life both before and after becoming “fat, drunk and mean” and what it’s like to “lose [your] faith in people,”, and they are absolute earworms.
These sweeping, radio-ready moments earned Strand of Oaks at least one comparison to Coldplay, but a different wildly successful ’00s band is a much closer match to Strand of Oaks’ sound. When Showalter’s voice hits the highest, soaring notes in Heal‘s gigantic choruses, it sounds extremely similar to Brandon Flower’s of The Killers, someone who was certainly no stranger to Springsteen’s influence. Comparing Strand of Oaks to the slick Las Vegas band is no insult. The album’s lyrical content and emotive vocals provide substance to match the style.
If catchy pop-music viewed through a gruff, misanthropic lens imbued with the attributes of every critically lauded singer/songwriter of the 20th century sounds appealing to you, then even Heal‘s slightly lackluster second half should deter you from listening to and loving this album.