It’s been a tough few years for Richmond, VA-based Lean Year. The band made up of Emilie Rex and Rick Alverson, has announced their sophomore album Sides in the midst of great personal tragedy.
The lead single from the album, “The Trouble With Being Warm”, explores the idea of loss in a COVID-transformed world. During the writing and recording process for the album, Alverson lost both of his parents in rapid succession, and Rex’s mother received a cancer diagnosis. Additionally, the couple’s beloved family dog Orca passed away.
“We thought we’d do a concept album called Sides where we could reflect on all of the division in the world, and some in our own families, but then COVID transformed everything/everyone, and we suffered our own specific losses. The record became about loss and grief,” Lean Year’s Emilie Rex explains.
“In this way, the title Sides was still appropriate: our individual grief and collective grief, the margins of before and after, the act and feeling of during and enduring.” Alverson adds, “It felt like straddling a threshold between two opposing sides—the moment before conflict and the moment after it passes, life and death, the act of living and the memory of the act. Grief feels like a contention between what you knew and what you now know, and often both feel real and unreal at once.”
Given Rick Alverson’s other career as a film director (The Mountain, Entertainment, The Comedy), it’s fitting that the music of Lean Year is both emotional and cinematic, powerful yet fragile. Between pop and stark/depressive imagery on their newest album, Lean Year balances out the spectrum and delicately describes the complex nature of grief.
In one harrowing moment on “Sides,” there is a description of a hospital room floor filled with white chrysanthemums. This imagery, based on an opiate-induced hallucination experienced by vocalist Emilie Rex’s mother as she recuperated from surgery, is an accurate depiction of the mix of beauty and the cold reality that Lean Year’s newest release captures so hauntingly well. The sorrowful, ambient suite teems with moments of mournful jazz, and slow-core, demonstrating a feeling of calm as the lyrics discuss ghosts, childhood, and death.
One of the album’s saddest moments comes from the song “Legs” which was written in collaborator Erik Hall’s basement, the night their dog Orca passed away.
“Rick wrote the song alone in Erik’s basement the night that Orca died,” Rex explains. “We found out the next day that my mother was dying,” Alverson continues. “And, there were eerie parallels in their deaths: their inability to stand, the medicine they were prescribed, the profound disorientation of failing minds. It was almost as though Orca was preparing us for her death.”
Perhaps it’s only appropriate then that a younger photo of Rex’s mother graces the cover, in a moment of happiness and contentment, perhaps with a slight hint of mischievousness. “Her smile in the photo is everything: radiant but secretive in her way like she knew something we didn’t,” Rex explains. “Which of course is true—then, and now.”
In the couple’s attempt to explore their grief and process this incredibly difficult period in their lives, Lean Year has opened the doors on grief. While no one person handles grief the same, for anyone who is currently experiencing loss, or has suffered from a loss in recent memory, Lean Year’s new album Signs is sure to be incredibly relatable.
Signs releases on September 22nd via Western Vinyl. Pre-order it here.
Sides Album Artwork:
7. Bad Woman
8. Marriage of Heaven and Hell