Whitney Ballen – Pretend Songs

The disclaiming title of Whitney Ballen’s new collection is a beguiling device. Pretend Songs is a patchwork of short pieces. They’re sung but they sound more like poetic vignettes or pages torn from diaries, than traditional songs.

At seven tracks long each song in the sequence carries the same ‘pretend’ prefix. Pretense is reiterated. Ballen observes the difference between real pain, and the artifice of pain that’s portrayed in a song. ‘Pretend Ok’, ‘Pretend Pain’, ‘Pretend Spring’, ‘Pretend Loss’, ‘Pretend Wishes’, ‘Pretend Bigger Things’, ‘Pretend Head’. Ballen occupies these pieces fully, she names them, extracting a grain of measure, and then she steps back a little.

There’s a thumbnail sound to these tracks, like the magic and intimacy of demos that music geeks swoon over. We hear what the artist is thinking, not what an engineer is projecting. Production edges are a little frayed; textured by crackle and hiss. A Casio-sounding keyboard provides that certain tone of inexpensive dreams. There’s a poetry to this approach. This is how Ballen’s music should be heard – the magical elements of breath, and the space between her thoughts, her mouth and her microphone. If we hush we can hear the air at rest inside a guitar. Here is a pause. A pause holds meaning.

Perhaps Ballen’s naming convention is a reference to the short nature of these pieces. ‘Pretend Pain’ is only sixteen seconds long. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also unusually up-lifting. ‘Pretend Head’ is fifty-eight seconds long. Does the artist hope to remove herself from the critical charge that ‘these songs aren’t long enough to be called proper songs’? She shouldn’t worry. This collection shares some of the most real, moving and authentic material to be released in some time.

Again, subject-matter is deeply personal. We’re in a landscape where internal conflicts shape external behaviors, and where external experiences cast doubts, but produce endurance of the inner soul. “I don’t know how to forget about it. One day I’m up, one day I’m down, and I keep thinking…” Ballen sings on ‘Pretend Loss’. The vignette form of the collection, gives an exploration of brevity and the fleeting nature of all things. In her avoidance of expectation Ballen has perfectly married content and form, and she’s produced something deeply real, deeply connective.

There are more ‘traditionally’ sized songs. ‘Pretend Wishes’ weighs in at over three minutes. It’s here that Ballen puts the most explicit expression of longing into things. “Is there anything I can do?” she sings over and over, like she’s locked in a personal mantra – imploring herself or another. Again, this stuff is of peerless beauty.

For those familiar with Ballen’s debut ‘You’re a Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship’ this new release provides further evidence of her trajectory along a stellar evolutionary path. We’re not talking shit like ‘Ballen’s going to hit the big time, enter the mainstream and maybe one day play the Super Bowl half time show.’ What a tedious waste of time that would be. No, Whitney Ballen is becoming the kind of artist who quietly leans back into the culture that shapes her. She will continue to speak to her audience for as long as her records exist. In that regard there’s a feel of Vashti Bunyan about Whitney Ballen. Her work possesses an authenticity and voice that will endure where fashion and broad appeal usually fade and fail.

Pretend Songs is an album that may well be overlooked. It occupies a rare space where truth is best addressed quietly. It makes no noise. It points at things which are not itself, and yet it is fully centered. It’s a courageous little release, it dismantles the heart and pours beauty over everything.

People should send Whitney Ballen money and nice things.


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