Dreams of Trouble and Transcendence: Brooke Waggoner’s Sweven

By Daniel Garrett

Brooke Waggoner, Sweven
Swoon Moon Music, 2016

The word “sweven” means dream, vision—and freedom has been the longtime dream for much of human history.  Freedom is something some musicians seemed to have claimed.  They know different kinds of music and want to use it all.  Listening to the work of Brooke Waggoner one is first surprised then reassured—it all makes sense.  Her album Sweven can be heard as classical, folk, or popular music as it has those elements in it.  In the song “Fink” there is an articulated desire for connection and a fear of fallibility amid a sense of wonder: the narrator asks for the guidance of the stars, for inspiration and integrity.  Waggoner sounds both girlish and knowing.  “Widow Maker,” a song of loss and grief, of anger and wit, has dense electronic choruses that follow a solitary voice—and it is both dramatic and amusing.  “Egg Shells” is full of piano runs.  The Texas-born Brooke Waggoner studied music at Louisiana State University and moved to Nashville, releasing an extended play set, Fresh Pair of Eyes in 2007, before the albums Heal for the Honey (2008), Go Easy Little Doves (2009), Originator (2013), and now Sweven (2016).

Of Go Easy Little Doves, the music magazine Paste’s writer Nikki King had said, “While it assumes a slower pace than her previous work, the album still centers on bright piano progressions and whimsical, heartfelt lyrics.  Vibrant string arrangements and choice woodwinds swell and fall; vocally, Waggoner performs in earnest—her voice floating over quivering violins and soaring into the ether” (October 14, 2009).  Brooke Waggoner has received attention for the quality of her songwriting, becoming a part of both local and national congregations of musicians (Waggoner has appeared with Jack White and Wilco).

Brooke Waggoner’s compositions acknowledge the inevitability of time, and the struggle between mundane responsibility and transcendent possibility, with love to be found or lost.  On Sweven, the song “Widow Maker” seems to contain so much musical possibility—it seems both a strong statement and a kind of satire.  American Songwriter (November 13, 2015) magazine made much of Brooke Waggoner’s video for the song “Widow Maker,” highlighting its scientific theme and humor.  “Pennies and Youth,” in which dissolute youth tries to find purpose and discipline, is full of rhyme, with harmonies and rhythms arriving in layers; and “Proof” is complex composition, waltzing.  The title song “Sweven,” about shared vision and hope, is a reconciliation of aesthetic expectations, and has piano in its foreground, with chorus and rock guitar in background.  Yet “Two of a Kind” has a surprising theme—a recognition of limits: two deluded, drugged people are oblivious to others, but the song is lifting in its whimsicality.  Waggoner invests “Ovenbird” with a variety of contrasts too.  The vocal declarations sound both sweet and sharp in “Adults,” featuring a memory of childhood succeeded by an assertion of maturity; and it has a bright musical tone followed by one more mournful.  There is an ethereal chorus in “Fellow,” an enticement to love which blends the classical, the experimental, and the popular.  A male voice asks existential questions, and confesses, in “Cherry-Pick.”  Focused on family conflict and personal alienation, the story-song “The Splitting of Yourself in Two” concludes the album on a note of trouble and sympathy.

 

Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader.

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