Need to Feel Sad: On the heartache and heartlessness of Lily & Madeleine

canterbury girls

You can tell a lot about someone from the way they wield profanity— especially when they’re discriminating about it. For instance, where some screenwriters are open fire hydrants of vulgarity, the legendary Nora Ephron includes exactly five f-words in her famous script for When Harry Met Sally. They are employed purposefully and judiciously, underscoring scenes about heartbreak and divorce; traumatic words used with traumatic intent. There is a similar economy of cursing on Canterbury Girls, the fourth album from sister act Lily & Madeleine— a single swear word, and they make it count. You can find it in “Pachinko Song,” about the desperation of trying to shake off a toxic relationship. “Quit fucking showing up,” the sisters sing, sweet and breathy harmonies only amplifying the blunt force of their curt dismissal. Maybe they’re addressing the pushy guy who keeps calling, making appearances long after his welcome has worn out; maybe the narrator is chastising herself for allowing him any of her mental bandwidth. Either way, the line lands like a body blow: it’s not senseless crudity, but laser-targeted resolve.

“Pachinko Song” is representative of Canterbury Girls’ 10 originals, most of which carry the sting of disappointment but also a faint flush of excitement. Blame it on their youth: Though the sisters born Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz have been performing together long enough to have shared the stage with Over the Rhine and a record label with Sufjan Stevens, they’re only now hitting their early twenties. Canterbury Girls is suggestive time and again of romantic frustration, but also the sense of possibility that comes with growing up. Its songs document two young women as they learn just who they are and what they’re made of— lessons made precious because they’re so often learned the hard way. You can still catch a whiff of youthful naïveté on the second song, which isn’t about any ordinary heartache but rather a “Supernatural Sadness”— enveloping, eviscerating, and eternal; an aching reminder of how formative heartbreaks always feel cataclysmic and irrecoverable. But you also get the sense that the sisters have taken enough lumps to build up some insulating scar tissue. “Self Care” hinges on a pun— “I can’t make myself care,” they sing in the vocal equivalent of the shrugging emoji— but it’s about exactly what its title says it’s about: Stuck in an increasingly one-sided relationship, the narrator does what she needs to do to safeguard her mental health— even if that means she becomes the heartbreaker, the bringer of someone else’s cataclysm. 

The record’s underlying theme is emotional autonomy– the liberty to either feel deeply or go numb, whichever is more useful for personal growth and self-preservation. (“I need to feel sad,” the sisters confess on “Circles.”)  Pop music is uniquely suited for facilitating such emotional acuity, and with Canterbury Girls Lily & Madeleine have finally made the faultless sweet-and-salty confection previous records have just hinted at. They still weave in and out of harmony with one another, a special effect more dazzling than anything a producer might cook up, and they still write spare, confessional songs of unflinching earnestness. What’s different is that their simple guitar-and-piano setup is now built out with layers of featherweight keyboard effects, offsetting their deep reserves of melancholy with bursts of buoyant joy. “Pachinko Song” races through pulsing synths that feel like they should be soundtracking a climactic John Hughes scene, and “Can’t Help the Way I Feel” deploys the duo’s youth and their sisterly connection to maximum effect in an irresistible girl-group bop. Give some of the credit to producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who helmed album sessions in Nashville. And talk about a buried lede: Tashian and Fitchuck are the same masterminds who presided over Golden Hour, last year’s roséwave masterpiece from the magnificent Kacey Musgraves. They bring a similar twilit glow to Canterbury Girls, their studio effects expressive conduits for the duo’s wistfulness and wonder, and just like on Golden Hour they prove they can do a lot with a little: “Self Care” opens up with the hymn-like austerity of a single piano, but then it’s as if a door opens to a gilded corridor of mirrorballs and glitter. “Just Do It” sounds like a rave-up for xylophones and marimbas; its low-end cred is persuasive enough to justify a thumping club mix from Mr Gabriel, easily findable on the streaming platform of your choice.

These sparkling, sadsack jams ratify the importance of blue seasons and low ebbs: “Misery is a blessing,” Lily & Madeleine sing in “Supernatural Sadness,” which looks back on a poisonous relationship with equal parts hurt and gratitude; enduring it was painful, but also clarifying (“realized what I need,” goes one tiny revelation). That clarity pays off in the slow sway of “Analog Love,” where the narrator knows exactly what she wants– a love that’s slow and patient in a world that’s increasingly frantic. But if it’s important to know when to feel, it’s can also be valuable to know when to lean into indifference. Their pals in Over the Rhine know this– “Lord knows we’ve learned the hard way/ all about healthy apathy,” attests one OtR classic– and some of the songs on Canterbury Girls shutter emotion as a way to maintain mental health. “I don’t need this to feel,” they assure in “Self Care,” where ending a relationship is purely transactional. And in the title song– named for a park in their home town of Indianapolis–  they remind us that “Canterbury girls are heartless,” embracing a reputation for callousness. Sometimes the best way to guard your heart is to tell yourself and anyone listening that you’re all outta fucks to give. But of course, these songs know better.

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