Both Feet In The World, At Least I Can Stand, the latest album by baroque-pop singer Laura Hickli, opens hesitantly. Over a carnivalesque piano line and eerie metallic synths, “Two Dogs” sketches an image of two dogs facing each other, one fated to live and one doomed to death; she parallels them with her own fate, choosing one of two paths that cross each other. You get the sense she’s been here before: “I’m lost yet again under the moon,” she sings. The piano picks up as her voice wordlessly descends a scale and the song seems to levitate, then falter; the synths slip out of tune, the chords become dissonant and uncomfortable. Then she stops, unresolved.
It’s immediately captivating and lays out the record’s ideas elegantly – Hickli’s arrangements tend towards this halting rhythm, pushing toward catharsis without ever quite reaching it. Both Feet sounds rich and enveloping, but it maintains a knot of discordant tension that never really dissipates.
For the album’s first few songs, this is pretty compelling. The rotted sweetness of the piano on “Two Dogs” gives way to the foreboding “Love, Outlive Me,” the latter underpinned by an unidentifiable, creakily mechanical ambiance. As the song builds, Hickli stacks her voice into diaphanous columns that dissolve her words into pure sound. The soundscape expands and expands – but then it contracts, leaving her nearly unaccompanied as she sings, “I must believe love will outlive me.” Her voice trembles, but she repeats the phrase like a mantra. She renders belief as an active choice, instead of a passive one.
Both Feet narratively chronicles Hickli’s departure from religious dogma; in that light, the record’s doomy sounds are analogous to a world without a sanctified order. “Love, Outlive Me” bleeds into “The Ebony Room,” perhaps the record’s finest moment precisely because it embraces sonic chaos. Hickli masks her voice beneath reversed reverb effects and piles herself into vast choruses, while corroded guitars and heavy bass sound thud underneath; by the end of the song, she’s fully disappeared into those sounds, and her words are difficult to decode. It literalizes the annihilation that strict religious belief is meant to keep out.
“The Ebony Room” represents Both Feet at its most affecting; its apocalyptic soundscape, and the confidence with which Hickli executes it, invokes both the fear of death and the counterintuitive comfort of surrender without needing to explain. It’s just felt, instinctively.
Those feelings are so intense that they highlight the album’s flaws; as impressive as Both Feet is, it’s also very brief, clocking in at twenty minutes over five songs. Brevity isn’t bad in and of itself, but each song feels like it has to hit a predetermined story beat instead of fully exploring its ideas, and this means that the latter half of the record feels a little underdeveloped. The shift from “The Ebony Room” into “Unholy Power” feels quite jarring as a result, and the latter’s motivational chorus – “There is a point in trying so hard!” – comes across as a little cheap given the intensity of what came before. Its melody is one of the best on the album, but it doesn’t quite achieve the catharsis it’s reaching for.
The closer, “Finding You’re Not Missing A Thing,” fares better, its placid tone and glimmering guitar sound finding a pocket of gentleness and peace. Its lyrics are plainspoken and direct: “How do you know the Bible is the right book?/What if there are answers where we don’t look?” This childlike tone counters the album’s weighty themes, and if it offers a narrative resolution that’s a little too neat, it’s still lovingly rendered – it’s like a fairy tale or, perhaps, a parable.
Religion itself sits somewhere between story and fact, providing order to an uncontrollable world; but even outside of strict religious orthodoxy, we still create stories that allow us to sort through the confusion and continue living. Both Feet does an admirable job at sketching out Hickli’s personal mythology – and it’s to her credit that you walk away wanting to know more.
Support Both Feet In The World, At Least I Can Stand on bandcamp. You can check out Laura Hickli’s website for music videos, tour dates, and more, or follow her over on Instagram. 📸: Grey Hills Studio