Music

Stunning new albums from Lala Lala and Hand Habits disprove the adage that dealing with your inner demons is detrimental to art. By Shaad D’Souza.

Lala Lala’s I Want the Door to Open and Hand Habits’ Fun House

Meg Duffy, who performs as Hand Habits.
Credit: Jacob Boll

Two videos set the tone for I Want the Door to Open, the third album by Chicago-based indie rock musician Lillie West, aka Lala Lala. In the first, a clip for the song “Diver”, West sets out armed with a chisel and a flashlight. She walks into the middle of the desert, where a slab of ice sits waiting for her. Entombed in the ice is a set of keys. She spends the entire video hacking away at the block, glittering fragments flying in every direction. As the song races to its anthemic, horn-backed conclusion, West finally wrenches the keys free; we don’t see her open the door.

The second video, titled Open the Door: Find Your Keys and Unlock Total Serenity, finds comedian Sarah Squirm leading a strange, gruesome infomercial in which she implores viewers to “find the key and unlock the door” as a balm for every spiritual ailment: “Finally, you’ll be able to rest forever, in a deep eternal sleep.” The video’s unnerving, low-budget kitsch quickly slides into anarchy as Squirm gives her gambit away, screaming: “Life doesn’t fucking stop, and then you find out you have 10 years left on the fucking planet! It’s not my fucking fault, is it?”

In both videos, the idea of striving for a better life is revealed as a fallacy. You chip away at a block of ice, only to have to face whatever the keys inside unlock; you pay $299.99 for some kind of cure to whatever your condition is, only to find that life just keeps going, as terrible as ever. West’s music, though, is hopeful. In contrast with the jagged, emotionally volatile edge of her superlative 2018 album The Lamb – one of my favourite records of the past five years – I Want the Door to Open takes the futility of life gestured at in those videos as a starting point, and embraces a journey towards personal understanding, without any end goal in sight. On “Bliss Now!”, she embraces the incremental, snail’s pace nature of finding joy in one’s own life: “I could wait / A long time / For bliss to come in / For a new life…”

West’s lyrics reflect an open, therapised approach to lyric-writing that seems to have become more common in indie music over the past few years, exemplified by recent albums by Helena Deland and Paramore’s Hayley Williams. If written 15 years ago, I Want the Door to Open might have been a record about break-ups, familial grief, or the like; in 2021, it is a challenging and often quite moving album about centring oneself, finding stability and serenity in a totally destabilised climate.

It’s a style also captured by Meg Duffy, the guitarist and songwriter whose gorgeous new album as Hand Habits, Fun House, arrives about the same time as I Want the Door to Open. Fun House, Duffy’s third album, actually is about break-ups and familial grief, but, like West’s album, it eschews particular detail in favour of something more impressionistic, drawing on evocative, dreamlike language to chart Duffy’s own tectonic emotional shifts. Both records capture a thrill of moving towards some unseen goal that, more likely than not, will remain elusive forever. “Clean Air”, the exhilarating centrepiece of Fun House, focuses not on a break-up but on the emotional breakthrough that precipitates it; Duffy writes about working through their own feelings with a bracing clarity.

This effusive style and loose musical backdrop – Fun House’s indie bedrock is kissed with the rangy openness of Americana – is new for Duffy. Their past records, 2019’s placeholder and 2017’s Wildly Idle, are sparser and more elliptical; Fun House is richer, more detailed and more emotionally accessible, in no small part thanks to Sasami Ashworth, the composer and musician who helped enliven Duffy’s songs with strings, horns and synths. Sasami is a canny arranger and she places Duffy in unlikely contexts that always seem to work. The swell of strings under “False Start” recalls the bombast of baroque 2000s indie-rock bands such as Arcade Fire, while mellotron, harpsichord and flute on “Control” bring to mind the warm Laurel Canyon folk of Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me. There’s a metaphorical bent to these new sounds: “I can change, I can change, I can change,” Duffy sings on “Control”.

Most importantly, it seems that Sasami has led Duffy to a place where they feel more comfortable leaving behind expectations about what their music is or is not; the most arresting moments on Fun House, like the soaring, windows-down opener “More than Love”, or synth-led lead single “Aquamarine”, are dizzyingly expansive compared with the scope of Hand Habits records past. The vistas of Fun House feel endless, all vast deserts and open roads and far-off sunsets.

I Want the Door to Open is similarly wide-reaching, but it’s aqueous and slippery where Duffy’s record is dry and still. Where The Lamb felt visceral, almost punk-like, as if West was still armed with the chisel but you the listener were the slab of ice, I Want the Door to Open is slightly more considered and goes down a little smoother, ceding space to a handful of guest musicians, including personnel from Fun House – Duffy plays guitar on “Straight & Narrow”, and Christian Lee Hutson appears on both records.

Saxophone by Sen Morimoto lends the record a weightless, sometimes unnerving, quality; the waves of lo-fi synths that glittered like glass fragments on The Lamb are rendered in lush hi-fi, giving the album a clean accessibility, even as West’s songwriting becomes more complex. Listening to the album is a little like wading through one of West’s own dreams – other voices float in and out of view; images of knives, arrows, tornadoes, foxes abound; and West continually questions her own reality, attempting to unpick the seams of her subconscious in real time. Alien, augmented voices follow West around constantly on I Want the Door to Open; the effect reminds me of the coda of Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation, where some freakish clone of Natalie Portman’s protagonist shadows her every movement. On “Prove It”, one of my favourite songs in the set, West sings to an adversary real or imagined: “Living like you’re on the screen / I’m looking for the real, real thing / Virtue is a fickle road / I walk the line of something uncontrolled.”

West and Duffy undertake these self-interrogations with aplomb. Both Fun House and I Want the Door to Open are confident, striking records; although their lyrics reflect a kind of in-process emotional state, there is little that’s underthought or gestational about each record. In their dynamism, each album reveals the old school of thought – that the rigour of therapy or psychoanalysis diminishes art – is deeply unfounded; there’s a new clarity to each of these albums that suggests greater steps forward are to come.

The yearning for clarity present on both albums seems to beget more yearning: “I’ll never know to stay / I crave a different place / I’ll go another way,” sings West. I Want the Door to Open and Fun House suggest there’s power to be found in the journey.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Music therapy".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.