Trauma experienced firsthand is debilitating; trauma remembered, on the other hand, is perhaps the greatest source of inspiration in the history of the artistic process. Creative recollection differs from commonplace recollection, transcending autobiography. Art is by nature alchemical. Of course, all art is spurred to some degree by experience – direct, observed, or imagined. That said, works that explore, reconcile, or universalize the impact of war (in the broad sense, as well as the myriad horrors that accompany it) seem particularly linked to the events that sparked them.
Wasteground, the second album from Mickey Stephens & Poor Blue, documents Stephens’ navigation of his experiences during “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. The album represents an impressive leap from the Americana-infused sounds and techniques of the band’s 2015 debut, You’re Welcome. Clearly Stephens and his band have refined and refocused their aesthetic energies and approaches, Wasteground no less than a contemporary manifesto on PTSD and the redemptive powers of art.
Stephens embraces the role of the Jungian Romantic, navigating his story while avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama and sentimentality. The “wasteground” is both the archetypal origin of the singer’s wounding and, as accessed through memory, that psycho-aesthetic domain where wholeness is potentially regained. Memory is the siren; answering its call necessitates grief but also makes enlivenment possible. With the opening track, Stephens sings: “When I was young I liked playing around on the wasteground / some place that nobody else had a purpose for / even a ghost wouldn’t come back to haunt it / I dug the places nobody wanted.” The bluesy riff grounds the song, establishing a brisk tempo, while Brandon Nater’s moody trumpet invokes a sense of otherworldliness.
“Childhood” is a tour de force, driven by Otis Hughes’ adventurous bassline and Jeff Kephart’s tasteful drumming. Stephens offers: “People have evolved from dinosaurs / giants downstairs lizard heads and cavemen / dark all night alive with shrieks…,” conjuring Jim Morrison (“The killer awoke before dawn” section of “The End” and/or parts of American Prayer), the band rendering textures reminiscent of Ray LaMontagne’s spacey Ouroboros or Nick Cave’s elegiac Skeleton Key.
“The Troubles,” bathed in fuzz courtesy of My Bloody Valentine or The Jesus & Mary Chain, is another highpoint, a reconfiguration of folk, rock, and shoegaze sources. The singer witnesses a bartender having his head “kicked in,” someone else’s arm “chopped off with a Black & Decker.” The song is replete with atmospheric, melodic, and imagistic hooks, and follows an epic arc despite remaining under four minutes in length.
The closing song, “Wasteground Return,” takes the set full circle: “Now I’m a ghost / I’m gonna come back to haunt it / back to the old place nobody wanted.” The album ends with a striking ambiguity: the singer may be a ghost eternally wandering the wasteground; at the same time, an initiatory passage has transpired, at least on an aesthetic level: Odysseus has found his way home; Dante has passed through hell, is midway through purgatory, if not approaching the entrance to paradise. In pagan and New Testament terms, death – psychic death, that is – has been overcome.
While Stephens’ songwriting savvy and expressive vocals are the salient elements of the album, Hughes’ agile bass parts and Kephart’s supportive drumming – on the abovementioned tracks as well as the more buoyant “Guest of Honor,” “Mr. In Between,” and “Generosity” – are integral to the success of the project. Tom Williams, the latest addition to the band, proves an invaluable presence on lead guitar, nudging the set in psychedelic directions and consistently broadening the album’s sonic palette (often blending the tones of David Gilmore with melodies and progressions a la Jimmy Page). With Wasteground, Mickey Stephens & Poor Blue have forged a sublime work of art: revelation accompanied by accessibility, independence shaped by pop awareness; an exemplary confluence of vision and craft.