Strand of Oaks lead singer-songwriter Tim Showalter has made a fine career out of penning songs about topics that most other singer-songwriters—most other musicians—would not dare address. He also has a great ear for what makes a song stick in a listener’s head (or ears); from his 2009 release Leave Ruin to his band’s breakthrough record, 2014’s HEAL, Showalter has never shied away from tingeing his alternative-rock song cycles with a healthy dose of pop craft. Unlike some of his indie brethren who tend to eschew any trace of pop melody in favor of overworked, sometimes overly long instrumental and vocal noodling, Showalter has admirably kept his music both accessible and forward-looking, even as his songwriting and composing skills have shifted and matured.
This goes a long way in explaining how HEAL’s opening track “Goshen ’97” (named for Showalter’s birthplace of Goshen, IN) can exist as a perfect rock song that also practically dares the listener to sing-yell along with its melancholy chorus of “I was lonely/But I was having fun/I don’t want to start all over again” as Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis provides a wonderful guitar line assist. “Goshen ’97” was a memorable opener to HEAL, and the rest of the album lived up to the greatness of its first track. Other standouts from HEAL—an album partially inspired by a horrific car accident that Showalter and his wife, Sue, survived in 2012—included the synth-heavy “Same Emotion,” alcohol abuse anthem “Shut In,” and the heartfelt “JM,” a tribute to influential singer-songwriter Jason Molina. HEAL was a heavy, gorgeously realized masterpiece—one which put Showalter’s considerable talents onto the radars of the music press and new fans.
Showalter’s latest album under the Strand of Oaks moniker, Hard Love, is markedly unlike HEAL in a lot of ways. In a recent Stereogum profile authored by music writer Ryan Leas, Showalter called HEAL “bullshit,” elaborating that he was “sick of being the sad white guy with an acoustic guitar.” Hard Love will lay that persona to rest. Where HEAL was a compendium of folk rock with an experimental, synth-driven edge, Hard Love is a collection of guitar-heavy anthems that tumble into psychedelia while retaining a brutal focus. “Radio Kids,” the album’s second track, may be the most traditional rock song that Showalter has ever written, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring or staid; if the song is not destined for actual radio play, it will surely find its way onto the playlists of music nerds and modern rock enthusiasts alike.
It’s difficult to name specific standout tracks on Hard Love—the entire album is skillfully, tightly paced, and with only nine tracks, there is not a second wasted. Many of the songs—most notably “Salt Brothers,” “On the Hill,” and final track “Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother,” were clearly inspired by Showalter’s (mis)adventures with substance use, but Hard Love’s personal, inward focus doesn’t detract from the quality of the songs. Piano-led ballad “Cry” serves as the album’s midpoint, and starkly paints a lyrical portrait of a relationship that might be romantic or harmful—or perhaps both–depending on the listener’s point of view.
Hard Love proves that Showalter excels at exposing and teasing out the contradictory—and often uncomfortable—aspects of being human. We are all flawed creatures, but even with those flaws, there are certain truths that are worth exploring and bringing to light via art. Hard Love may not be an explicitly political record, but the songs that Showalter has crafted on this album serve as stark reminders—and very needed ones in this political moment—that human difficulties and flaws must be brought to light in order to make any sort of progress.