Last year, Nazis and white supremacists rioted in the streets of the small Southern city where I’ve lived for the past six years. They killed one person, and they sent the entire community into a profound, traumatized funk. A couple of months later, Julien Baker came to town. One of her opening acts was Kiley Lotz, a young woman from central Pennsylvania who records under the name Petal. During her set, Lotz, who stood alone onstage and who didn’t look that comfortable doing it, became just about the only touring performer I’ve seen in Charlottesville who had anything serious to say about the racist horde who’d just ripped through the place.
It wasn’t a huge gesture, and she didn’t speak for long. But for whatever reason, most of the touring artists who come through this place don’t say shit about it, even though the story dominated national headlines for weeks. (Future, who was supposed to play a back-to-college arena show a week after the riots and who could’ve given us a cathartic moment, ended up cancelling his show.) With a few simple and heartfelt words about how she’d been inspired by watching this place’s reaction to what happened, Lotz communicated an intense empathy. It’s something she does in her music, too.
Lotz makes grand, fuzzy, tuneful indie rock, singing frankly and unsparingly about internal conflicts. She’s not exactly a lyrics-first artist; you could develop a serious attachment to her music without ever really digging deep into what she’s singing about. You could, if you wanted, seize on her voice — clear and plainspoken and communicative, capable of broadcasting bittersweet longing just in the way she leaps up an octave on a chorus. You could lean into the hooks, which are sharp and crunchy and confident, or the dynamics of her albums, which move from catchy pop-punk jams to exposed-nerve piano ballads. But if you did that, you’d be missing out. As a writer, Lotz is precise and open-hearted, and she makes you feel what she feels.
The brand-new Magic Gone is Lotz’s second album as Petal, and it comes after a turbulent time in her life. She’d moved from Scranton, her desolate hometown, to New York, which probably feels a lot like the part in The Wizard Of Oz where the house lands and suddenly everything is in color. (Most of us probably only know Scranton as the charmingly dull backdrop of The Office, but I’ve spent a few hours in the bus station there, and even by Greyhound-depot standards, that place is bleak.) But things didn’t go right for Lotz in New York. She had to move back to Scranton, getting treated for major depression and panic disorders. Magic Gone is the first thing she’s released since going through all that. It’s the first thing she’s released since she came out as queer. And though the press materials don’t mention it, if the lyrics are any indication, it’s also the first thing she’s released since going through a motherfucker of a breakup.
Lotz has split the 10-song Magic Gone into two LP sides: one written when her life was falling apart, one written while she was in treatment. That makes it a raw document of a raw time, even though the songs themselves are, on a simple aesthetic level, uniformly gorgeous. But it also means that the album follows an arc that leads toward redemption, or at least acceptance. It’s never happy, but by the time it ends, you can hear a certain distance and perspective in what Lotz sings.
The album opens with “Better Than You,” a song that explicitly addresses Lotz’s discomfort with performing in front of people: “They say, ‘Hey man, you were great’ / But they don’t even have the slightest affection / That you’re really not doing OK / And maybe tonight you could barely even play.” Over the course of the album, she goes through hard times. Her relationship starts to fray: “A binary system, we paced around each other / One is bound to shine more bright.” It eventually falls apart: “I’ve seen the signs long ago that you think I’ve stopped believing / It’s a terrible crime.”
Soon enough, Lotz is looking back on it with hard bitterness and judgment: “You’re the tick I found at summer’s end crawling around the back of my neck / I thought you were a sun spot I’d have memories of / But you’ve embedded yourself, and you’re sucking my blood.” But then, by the time she reaches the utterly stunning closing track “Stardust,” fondness has crept into all the hopelessness: “Now we’re living in shitty apartments, unlike our parents / Maybe we’d make good parents / Maybe not, I can’t say / I can’t say I didn’t love you.” The darkness remains, but it no longer consumes everything around it.
On paper, at least judging by those lyrics, it probably looks like Magic Gone is a heavy, intense ugly-cry of an album, maybe something like what Lotz’s former tourmate Julien Baker might give us. But it’s not like that. Her presentation is completely different. Lotz played every instrument on Magic Gone except the drums, but even on the songs where we hear her voice over a spare piano or guitar, it sounds like we’re listening to a full band at work, and it also sounds like that full band is working overtime to prevent these songs from getting too dark and heavy.
Lotz harmonizes with her own multitracked voice, and she writes hooks — hooks that remind me of the Crutchfield sisters of Waxahatchee and Swearin’, or maybe of early-’90s Belly and Velocity Girl. This might be inward-looking music, but the songs still zip. “Better Than You” and “Tightrope” remind me of alt-rock radio in the very early ’90s, before the post-Nirvana boom turned everything into angst central. You could pogo to these songs just as easily as you could cry to them. It’s a funny thing, how the heaviness of the words and the lightness of the music can feed each other, how they can make each other stronger. It’s a dichotomy that makes Magic Gone — an album that’s utterly drowning in sadness in a lot of ways — into something warm and comforting and friendly: an album that might help you out and bring you up if you’re ever feeling something like what Lotz was feeling when she wrote these songs. It might even hit you the way it hit me one night, last year, when Lotz said a few nice words about my city.
Magic Gone is out 6/15 on Run For Cover.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Nas’ as-yet-unheard, as-yet-untitled Kanye West-produced album.
• Jay Rock’s as-yet-unheard LA rap statement Redemption.
• Culture Abuse’s fuzzed-up power-popper Bay Dream.
• Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s sharp jangle-popper Hope Downs.
• Omnivorous jazz supergroup R+R=NOW’s debut Collagically Speaking.
• Melody’s Echo Chamber’s psych-pop reverie Bon Voyage.
• Mourn’s spartan post-punker Sorpresa Familia.
• Johnny Marr’s solo jangler Call The Comet.
• Chromeo’s reliably slick festival-funker Head Over Heels.
• Christina Aguilera’s all-over-the-place, guest-heavy return Liberation.
• Liam Betson’s expansive, ruminative Room For A While.
• Swim Good Now’s floaty, shimmery Daylight.
• The self-titled debut from Arthur Buck, Joseph Arthur and ex-R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck’s new duo.
• BC Unidos’ collab-heavy full-length debut Otro Mundo Es Posible.
• Hoops member Kevin Krauter’s solo debut Toss Up.
• Délétère’s black metal pummel De Horae Leprae.
• Black Keys leader Dan Auerbach’s father Chuck Auerbach’s solo debut Remember Me.
• The Stadiums & Shrines compilation Dreams.
• Protomartyr’s Consolation EP.
• Blushh’s Thx 4 Asking EP.