Whipped into form by religion and the restrictive indoctrination it often entails, Kentucky singer-songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin finds herself searching for answers her religious upbringing could not provide.
Toiling with the denouncement of her faith while reflecting on the negative repercussions of her Baptist upbringing, Tomberlin’s debut album, At Weddings, is a painfully intimate look inside an anguished woman idling in isolation.
“I am a tornado/ With big green eyes and a heartbeat/ You don’t know what to do/ And I don’t blame you,”the 22-year-old (whose nom de plume is her last name) on the tumultuously mournful “Tornado.”
Lyrically, Tomberlin is cut from a similar mold as Julien Baker and Conor Oberst, whom she has noted as a big influence. Her words are complex with meaning and haunted with anxiety. Here, she is excruciatingly transparent. She reaches down inside and tears out her pained heart for others to see.
On the album’s lead single, “Self-Help,” Tomberlin paints a stark image of someone on the verge of self-destruction. “Electrocuted in the bathtub/ Yellow black my bruises become/ The heart is a heavy coffin/ Where I lay down everyone I love,” she sings. Tomberlin expressed a deepening plea to be understood. Fear of rejection infests the entirety of At Weddings, but on this track, especially so.
Across 10 fragments of dejection, listeners are thrown into a lull that is both sensitive and raw. The mood is achingly depressive but possesses the slightest glimmer of hope.
As Tomberlin navigates through dissonance and sadness, her resounding voice holds on like an anchor through her words and wounds, indicating confusion and despair. On “I’m Not Scared,” Tomberlin’s sweeping vocals strike with valor as she wails over quite possibly the most sobering lyrical moment on the entire album: “In my sentience I wear your judgement like a crown/ Couldn’t look you in your eyes so I look to the ground/ Then I took the drugs again last night/ But pills have never brought me any kind of light.”
While it may be sheathed by images of self-medication and rejection, hope looms beneath the entirety of the record. At Weddings exposes Tomberlin’s dwelling doubts and insecurities, birthed by judgment, and confronts them head-on.
Sonically, Tomberlin, with the help of Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy, Arcade Fire), backs her melancholic ponderance with a skeletal setup and ghostly production. That being said, At Weddings champions slowcore elements by combining Wurlitzer piano, guitar and minimal synth chords to enhance deep desire and desolation.
While it shouldn’t be played for casual enjoyment, At Weddings is a captivating, voyeuristic experience, one that will force you to return simply based on its emotional ephemerality. It’s an in-the-moment type of emotional release. But Tomberlin’s harrowing debut will leave an imprint because it is both sincere and unafraid to sit in a cesspool of doubt and anxiety.
Follow writer Kyle Kohner at Twitter.com/kylejkohner.