It's comforting to think there's a reason for every tragedy in our lives, from the smallest to the insurmountable. More likely, however, is that we are victims of moments of tragedy and joy in equal measure, and the unknowable random force that introduces them to us is one and the same.
The comfort of this is that the human mind is able to organize its memories and assign meaning to even the bleakest traumas. To find the joke hidden in the death of a loved one is an empowering and thoroughly human act, something which New York by-way-of-Oregon musician Laura Gibson does seemingly effortlessly several times throughout her fifth studio album Goners, out now on Barsuk Records.
This is not to say Goners is a funny album, but it is a work centered around the duality of grief. Several of the tracks, such as "Slow Joke Grin," are appropriately dirge-like, with thunderstorm percussion and a haunting hammered dulcimer accompanying Gibson's melancholic vocal delivery and early Leonard Cohen-indebted finger-style acoustic guitar. The sound of the album as a whole wavers between sparse folk and a more fleshed-out full band sound, and counterbalancing the most sparse songs are driving, poppy tracks such as "Domestication," which has a lively backing beat that helps it sound hopeful even as it maintains the album's earnest conceit of diving into life at its saddest.
"It feels very true to grief and to trauma," Gibson tells SFR. "There are these moments of lightness, absurdity and humor within those experiences that are often hard to know what to do with. That feels very true to life. At different points I worried about having these sort of more poppy moments in the record, but in the end they felt important."
Gibson is no stranger to these reflections, having gone through the loss of her father early in her life, and even more recently in 2015 when she lost her New York City apartment in a fire caused by a gas line explosion.
"I think everything I've written in my life has had grief woven into it one way or another," Gibson says. "Even the songs that would qualify as love songs tend to have grief within them because they're so connected."
For Goners, however, she decided to use the concept of grief as a directive to guide the songwriting. While not a concept album per se, it is perhaps the most direct her songwriting has aimed toward a single cohesive thread. Gibson recently completed her MFA in fiction at New York City's Hunter College, and says she views fiction writing as a related but separate discipline from her songwriting—but it nonetheless helps to add grounding and structure in her abstract lyrical approach.
"Certain stranger abstract statements in songwriting can kind of work and pay off in an intuitive way, whereas within my [fiction] work, I've learned that I really need to ground any abstract thoughts or statements in concrete objects," Gibson explains. "When I started writing fiction, a lot of it was just very floaty, lovely observations about the world and I wanted everything I wrote to be a long monologue about the meaning of life. I realized how necessary it is to ground these big, abstract ideas of loss and love in objects and real concrete observations. I feel like that's something I took back to my songwriting, even if my songs are a little bit surreal in places, I wanted them to be populated with objects."
Whatever the journey it took Gibson to reach the material in Goners, it was worth it. The album is a serious and focused work that never weighs the listener down, but instead demonstrates the importance of grief in bringing out some of our best qualities. In the chaos of life, Gibson has assigned beautiful meaning to some fraction of it.
"I think the record became less about rehashing grief in my life but more about how grief both isolates and connects us to other people," she says. "A lot of the record ended up being about empathy and our capacity to hold each other's pain as much as it is about one person's pain."
A fittingly brighter-than-expected note that frames much of what makes the music so vital.
Editor's Note: Both Laura Gibson shows sold out before presstime, but maybe readers can get creative on Craigslist or something—or a cool friend with the hookup. Good luck!
Laura Gibson with Gregory Alan Isakov
7 pm Saturday and Sunday Feb. 9 and 10. Sold out. Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle, 395-6369