Album Review: The Beths – Expert In A Dying Field

The Beths – Expert In A Dying Field
(Ivy League Records)

Reviewed by Tim Gruar.

The Beth’s third album has just dropped and it’s gone straight to number one on the charts. There’s a good reason for that. Built on the back of two solid releases, this album promised more hook laden jangly introspection about breakups, breakdowns and ‘break aparts’. And it’s delivered on that, with a brief handshake and a promise to return your stuff by the end of the month.

You’ve got to hand it to her, Elizabeth Stokes can conjure up the best song and album titles. Their last release, ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ hinted at childhood relationships and naivety of taking the world on face value. Prior to that, ‘Future Me Hates Me’ was a warning to oneself not to be a dick or take things for granted or do stuff you know you’ll regret later. And now the new one, ‘Expert In A Dying Field’ nods at skills and opinions that are fazing away. Of course, these are all first impressions, and as most Beths fans know, their music is more than just a quirky title. The longer you spend with a song them more complexity and layers you unwrap. Interpretations will, inevitably change, depending on personal experiences and situations.

And that’s what’s so cool about the Beths. Their music always sounds like it was written just for you, or your situation. You, the one standing in the crowd, as the guitars wash over you like inviting waves of sonic bliss and the undercurrent of each song’s meaning drags you under.

Most of ‘Expert In A Dying Field’ was recorded at the band’s guitarist Jonathan Pearce’s mint green studio on Karangahape Road. Some of the material came from pre-pandemic times, others were the work of longer distance collabs during lockdown. Notes traded remotely. Song writing and arranging done in isolation. The following February, they resumed touring for two years across the US, and simultaneously finished mixing the road, including a crazy three-day studio cram session in a Los Angeles studio. There, say the liner notes, “ ‘Expert In A Dying Field’ finally became the record they were hearing in their heads”.

On this album Stokes’ writing is somewhere between author and documentary maker – songs are both autobiographical and aloof with well formed character sketches of real and imagined relationships – be they platonic, romantic, confrontational – and their aftermaths. This is relationship autopsy, an exploration of that unique emotional space that remains, the ghosts of personal investments into love left abandoned in the absence. When they are gone, “how do you know, when it’s over?” she asks in the lines of the title track. “Can’t stop, can’t rewind”. “Can we erase our history? It’s never as easy as this,” the song goes, “Maybe in other realities, the road never took this twist”.

The ‘expert’, it seems, is the one who’s left remaining, who must make amends, pick up the pieces. The question remains: What do you do with all this intimate knowledge ad experience after they are gone from your life? The ‘dying field’ it seems is the art of navigating post-break up. “I can close the door on us but the room still exists”. “How does it feel to be an expert in a dying field? How do you know it’s over when you can’t let go?” Stokes asks. “Love is learned over time ‘til you’re an expert in a dying field.” You have to admire this very clever songwriting.

The double speed 90’s rock-pop groove of ‘Knees Deep’ reminds me a little of tracks like Avril Lavigne’s ‘Sk8ter Boi’ for some reason. Until it stretches out to a delicious guitar solo in the bridge. It’s a great mosher. You’ll be bouncing around the living room. Yet despite the confidence of the music, the lyrics are a contradiction. They speak of nervously wading into a relationship: shame, shyness, nervous steps. “Wading in up to the ankles/The cold speaks straight to my bones/Whole body and soul hesitation”. You can just imagine the speaker shivering they edge into the situation, like testing the waters of a freezing cold lake on a scorching summer day, while her friends and laughing and splashing about her. “The shame/ I wish I was brave enough to dive in/But I never had been and I never will be/I’m coming in hot then freezing completely”. The final line – “I’ll never be brave like you” is made manifest in their video, featuring the band all sneaking off to try out the bungy jump on the Harbour Bridge.

The tempo jumps up again with the fabulously contradictory ‘Silence is Golden’. Written in retaliation to the constant ‘noise’ you live with when touring and a need to find peace amongst the chaos of van life, plane rides and endless sound checks. “Instead, it’s white noise/Suffering loud/It’s wearing me down/I’m up to my ears in it.” Even more so, given this song was perfected in sessions during the 2020 lockdowns and the realisation that live gigs may never happen again. It seems Stokes got her wish then, despite all: “I wish that I could freeze time/Go to the wild/Soak up the quiet/Til I’m dripping wet with it.” Deck’s drumming, offset by a blistering guitar solo towards the end of the song is a proliferation of noise, poignant to the meaning. Point made entirely.

Not every track on this album is full throttle. ‘Your Side’ is a pretty sweet little love ditty with a good dollop of creamy 70’s sway. Plenty of dreamy assumptions and doting. That warm fuzzy crush-on-you vibe and the slightly love-ditzy lines like “here I going again mixing drinks and messages…I wanna hear you say “Don’t cry, I’ll fly, I’ll drive all night to be by your side”.

‘I want to listen’ is almost a bit ‘Beatles’, strumming and catchy as can be. Of all the songs, this one feels like it was written during 2020 more than any of the others. “Unless you quit/Zoom out a bit” or “It’s been quite a year/It’s been quiet and loud/Laughter and tears”.

Again, bitter sweet lines “If you wanna whisper, I swear I wanna listen.” On the surface, it looks like Stokes has found her empathetic side. But the more you listen, the more you’ll realise that this is her coming to terms with herself – the way she and us are always too wrapped up in our own problems to make time for others. She’s piling up the excuses. There’s a lot on her mind, literally “I rest my case in a bed unmade/The headboard strained/Under the weight of my memory of the day/so crammed Getting low on RAM/Getting high on strife…” This is a moment of resetting, declaring, as we all do sometimes, that this time she really is here for you.

In a recent interview, Stokes shared that her mother was Indonesian Catholic, that she’d been ‘dragged along to church’ every Sunday until she was 13 or 14. For her mother attending was and still is an important part of her life. In the song ‘Head in the Clouds’ Stokes explores the notion of faith, perhaps some of the tropes and clichés and the rationale behind being a believer in this day and age. “So, you try to see go/but he isn’t at work/Will you come down/Come down, come down to earth?”

Has she lost her faith? I wonder. “…there’s no soft (no soft), white light/No one listening to me at night/is this (is this), goodbye?/I’m stuck waiting for a sign”. It’s a song that challenges religion on all levels. This ‘god thing’, it’s not for her. “Is it a wasted dream? If I could climb that hill/I would be a miracle”.

‘Best Left’ is a perfect slice of swaggering scuzz pop with a deeply philosophical outlook of decaying relationships. The chant “Some things are best left to rot…” sums up things pretty well. It’s a declaration of defeat, walking away and being done with it. You have to ask, given Stokes’ own partner, Jonathan Pierce is an integral part of the band, how he feels about all this. Hopefully, this isn’t a dashboard confessional gone too far.

For ‘Change In The Weather’ the band return to their trademark hooky, jangle pop, to tackle this meteorological approach to relationship anxiety. “The winter knocked me out/Frozen in an avalanche of doubt.” You can’t help being reminded of 90’s indie acts like Belly, Lemonheads and The Juliana Hatfield Three, and there’s a comfort in that familiarity.

There’s a spot of 60’s garage pop in ‘When You Know You Know’, with the flagship lyric “It takes all of my restraint/Not climbing in your cranium/To observe the way the furniture’s arranged” – a nod to the temptations of a control freak, maybe? These lines are just so brilliant. Stokes is totally on fire. The way she sums up the gamble of a new commitment: “Pinning all my hopes to the wrong pincushion”. How can you top that?

Towards the end of the album, there’s a dedication of sorts, to all those that support us, even when we are at our lowest. Those people that put up with us and all our shit, our emotional breakdowns and blow-ups. ‘A Passing Rain’, perhaps a reference to a moment of chaos in our lives, a storm that won’t last too long. “You tell me sweetly/You wouldn’t have me any other way/You’re not a liar, but I cant believe you/When I’m in this state…I cave like I was built to break/You stay, as if it’s not in vain”. If you ever need a song for a wedding anniversary, or the dedication of a friendship, this is it!

I cant be certain, but I suspect ‘I Told You I was Afraid’ is also a pandemic song. It’s essentially a list of things that frighten or could frighten Stokes, now or in perception. There are references to the social anxiety we all have returning to the ‘old’ normal after lockdown. Weirdly, by confronting her demons she’s operating in a structure that’s counter-intuitive to the song’s message.

Initially, she’s embracing the dark relationships. This was a reality for every musician – looking at her destiny, concerts cancelled, studio time impossible, rehearsals impossible, purpose dissolved. Summarised: “One more year, then I’ll look at the score/I don’t know what I’m getting up for.” And yet, to make this song she, and the band had to do just that.

The album finishes with the dream state pop of ‘2 AM’, a track recorded in the cavernous L-shaped stairwell of the band’s K-Road studio/rehearsal space. On this track Deck’s jazz chops come into play with his loose, flowing percussion carrying the track across the ears like hazy blanket of smoke. This track builds slowing, lost in reminiscence, a time lost to the past, memories small actions and feelings – late night conversations in kitchens, moments shared, now gone. “Do you feel it like you did back then? 2Am we were pounding the pavement…” The song reaches a slow, magnificent crescendo, everything layering over the top of each other, climbing skyward and then crashing down, like a match stick bridge of sighs.

Songs of insecurity, thoughtfulness, and understanding have been the touchstones of The Beths’ work since 2016. Songs about facing up to pain, owning it, accepting shortcomings and embracing them. There is wit and tenderness to manage the blows and steady the soul. This is what it takes to truly be ‘An Expert In A Dying Field’.


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