Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Her, the new album from Australian dream pop band Totally Mild.
Social norms about what’s considered to be a “normal life,” particularly for women artists, are inherently conflicting. You could fill a record store with songs about the interference of life on the road, the taxing emotional and mental time that making art takes, the artistic resistance against conventions of monogamy, commitment, children. In fact, being an artist and being domestic is frequently framed as a binary. In a New York Times Modern Love essay entitled, “The Secret to Marriage Is Never Getting Married,” the author lists reasons they didn’t want to marry their long-term partner, one of which reads: “because neither of us had regular jobs and we both wanted to be artists more than we wanted to be married people.” Artist Marina Abramovic famously had three abortions, claiming that motherhood would be the worst thing she could do for her art.
In the album announcement from Chapter Music, Totally Mild frontwoman Elizabeth Mitchell said, “Her is a record of failure and victory, new desire, stale romance, queer domesticity and what comes when the party is over. I was torn between a new domestic life and the impulse to tear it all away with bad choices. I fell in love, but I wrestled for independence. I was always trying to prove that I didn’t need anyone; my wife, my friends, my band. Her is a document of a woman struggling with the idea of potential. We are told that we could be limitless, but we wrestle with unseen personal and structural walls.” Participating in any of life’s difficult balances, like the one between making art and “normal” life, is bound to generate feelings of inadequacy and unrest. “I can’t keep you going / when I can’t keep me from going down / I am nothing to stay alive fore / I am nothing to die for,” Mitchell moans on the crawling, molasses-thick song “Underwater.”
Queerness and domesticity share a similar cultural tension from which Mitchell draws, and the central conflict of Totally Mild’s splendid Her is trying to reconcile. There’s a gorgeously familiar sulk of dissatisfaction to their wonky guitars, the drums that drag with purpose, Mitchell’s sigh. On “More” she sings “Here I am before you / always asking for more / I will always want more.” In queer poet and author Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts—largely about queer domesticity—she describes a mug she owns that displays a family photo of her, seven months pregnant, standing next to her partner and his son. She discusses the time her friend was over and used the mug, and they remarked “Wow, I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life.” She asks why is it, exactly, that domesticity—within and outside of queer communities—is considered to be heteronormative. Why is it assumed to repel queer individuals, even when not much about queerness itself, aside from domesticity being a dominant social norm, is inherently at odds with domesticity?
Alluding to this tension, and its relation to time, Her’s stunning, unsettling Stanley Cooper-esque album cover features Mitchell’s wife, staring from a hot tub into a mirrored wall under the reflection of a portrait of Mitchell’s mother on the opposite wall. In the context of Mitchell’s statement and the album itself, it reads like a portrait of the experience of being a woman, being a queer woman, and the decisions and balances women have been forced to make throughout time. Mitchell asks how do those whose identities, politics, dreams and purposes conflict with societal symbols of human connection navigate the world. “Sitting in the house all day, I wait for you to come home / I am smart and sensible but I don’t want to be alone,” she sings on the massive symphonic surf-rock track “Today Tonight.”
None of this is to say Mitchell is writing off domesticity in any respect, simply examining its tensions and splitting open its complications and the unrest that can stem from it. On the simple, intimate piano ballad, she sings “You have made me become what I am / People talk about looking back / I’m looking on with you / I won’t think about any lack / I’m looking on with you.” Through the album’s feeling of dissatisfaction and Mitchell’s reconciliation between norms, ideals and reality, it also speaks to the need for love inherent to us all, and the beauty that can come from it.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.