Catharsis. It’s a word that could be used frequently (to the point of overuse) to describe Timothy Showalter’s new (aptly titled) Strand of Oaks record “Heal”, and it wouldn’t be without justification. Across the span of these 10 tracks Showalter lets the blood spill where it may, at times raw and confessional and in others savagely defiant, keen to let a hushed murmur build into a wicked shrilling scream. From the start of opening track “Goshen 97” and it’s garage rock thrash, “Heal” is laid out as an earnest look into a mirror covered over with cracks and erosion. And it doesn’t spend a moment attempting to flinch away from the image.
Rather, Showalter paints each feeling of his self-portrait in full color out upon the canvass. From the Indiana kid who’s “lonely but having fun” growing up with Casios and a tape machine in “Goshen” to the man wondering if he was “born in the middle maybe too late” in “Shut In”, these songs often seem like hard-fought survival contrasted against a fog of uncertainty, emptiness and relationships in turmoil. “Heal” feels like a collection of snapshots; memories strewn in growing up and growing old, yet tied together by their separate burden of the unknown and insecure.
That weight reaches it’s peak with songs like the title track and “Mirage Year”, the former being a stripped-back process of thought that reaches deep to hold it’s roots of sanity together, while the latter blasts them apart. “Mirage” is Showalter’s unfiltered perspective of his wife’s infidelity, and while the issue both discomforts yet manages to fondly reminisce throughout this record, it’s on this song that the pain of it ruptures through the hardest. Couple wounded, spiting vocals with pounding drums and guitar lines that rise up in a wave that would make Neil Young’s Crazy Horse blush, and the only feeling left to describe it is…. chewed up, spat out, and loving every minute of it.
But despite how deep that feeling of darkness goes, or how far that anger travels, Timothy Showalter above all else seems resolute to carry on. On the song “JM” he pays homage to the twilight by recognizing the late Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co frontman Jason Molina, another artist who brooded just as prolifically but sadly couldn’t make it out of the spiral. It’s a song that rattles walls and crackles with energy, the kind of song that Molina and his Neil Young-inflected live energy would have appreciated. But it also comes with a tone of defiance and not letting “these dark times win”; at once memorializing a departed man and taking it as a lesson not to fall.
The same goes for a line in “Mirage Year”, in which Showalter opines that “my hands are worth more than your blood”. It seems like a reminder of self-worth, that pushing through means more than settling a score. And while “Heal” doesn’t exactly entail the promise of a happy ending, Showalter is the master of those struggles put to tape. At times as anthemic as Springsteen, melodically synth-laden as U2 or riff-heavy as Neil Young, he’s peeled back his arrangements and taken them to their greatest exodus yet.
And that’s part of so much that should rightly surprise people about Strand of Oaks and “Heal” this year. Timothy Showalter may very well continue to cruise under the radar of many listeners and publications, but his record is a wildly vicious ride into the underbelly of pain, scrutiny, triumph and ultimate catharsis. There’s that word again, and never does it seem more therapeutically truthful. As Showalter gently croons on “Shut In”, “the night was cold and black, but the sun was in my eyes”. By the time “Heal” concludes, the horizon feels like it’s just begun to come out.