In boxing, core strength is everything. Most people can make a fist and swing their arms, but the power behind a punch doesn’t come from the arm or shoulder. Rather, it begins in the core, in the boxer’s stance: feet apart, knees bent, hips lowered, abs engaged. To throw a punch, I turn my whole body into it, driving my fist with every inch of my being. I connect to the earth and use that centered strength to power myself over it. But I’m still fighting; the challenge is using my mind to channel my emotions instead of letting them control me.
In the video for “Blood,” the lead single from Sweet Pill’s debut album Where The Heart Is, vocalist Zayna Youssef enters a boxing ring as the camera adopts a low angle. She swings, she bounces on her toes, she keeps her body low and her fists up near her face. Feet apart, knees bent, hips lowered. The song’s pace is measured but focused – bassist Ryan Cullen and drummer Chris Kearney hit the second and fourth beats precisely, keeping the song moving, while Sean McCall and Jayce Williams’ guitars snake over the rhythm section like patient predators.
“Hold out until there’s closure,” Youssef sings, tracing the arc of a disintegrating relationship, “…or punch a hole in the drywall.” When the chorus confirms that she’s done the latter – “These purple knuckles are proof for the choice I took” – the video responds by showing her knocked on her back by an uppercut. Her fearsome opponent? A child.
It makes sense. Where The Heart Is concerns itself with the contrast between focused concentration and raw strength, between the things that have to be cultivated and the things that you innately possess. An adult has to think about responsibility and duty, has to build their life in such a way that they can’t be overcome with emotion or make irresponsible decisions; a child is pure emotion and irrationality. At the end of “Blood,” Youssef breaks from the song’s measured rhythm and screams her final line at the top of her range, her voice shredding from the force as the song collapses behind her. The child inside of you – the emotional, angry, frustrated voice – can’t always be contained.
This dichotomy between focused calm and volcanic emotional expression recurs throughout. Second single “High Hopes” starts with gorgeous descending guitar harmonics, then strolls through a sequence of riffs for nearly a minute before the drums pick up and Youssef’s voice lifts off into the chorus. “Hope swarms like flies/I am trying not to hide,” she wails. Then, later: “I am trying to be someone else.”
The song feels less like a linear sequence of pop sections – verse, bridge, chorus – and more like a progression through different movements and emotional states collapsing onto each other. But that description belies the band’s musical precision as they glide through each shift. They’ll stop for a second of silence, slip in a quick drum break, add in new melodies and riffs. Finally, the end of the song repeats one of the middle lyrics – “Do you have it in you to lie?/To tell yourself you’re gonna be fine?” – as the tempo slows to a crawl and the chord progression slips down into a minor key.
These dynamic shifts, despite how drastic they can feel and how technically impressive they are to listen to, never feel destabilizing; the band maintains a crouched, toughened stance, so when they change up a song it’s like they’re responding to its emotional content in real-time. Think about a boxer: you have to read your opponent’s moves, dodge and weave in the moment. You can train all you like, but what you’re really trying to do is train your instincts so that you’re able to trust your body.
That sense of trust and self-control is built into the album’s framework. On the title track, Youssef sings “I know what I know/So I go where I go.” It’s a bluntly impassive tautology, but it’s also expressive of the numbing routine that the song describes. (In a live performance this past April, Youssef introduces the song by saying, “It’s about how working 9-5 every day fucking sucks.” Word.) There’s a coiled strength in its delivery – Youssef pirouettes the words on top of a bruising rush of guitar, so the impression isn’t necessarily one of boredom but of self-awareness. She sounds frustrated but still able to tough it out, aware of herself and her surroundings at every moment. She’s not letting her guard down.
This particular quality is a bit of a double-edged sword. The band’s ability to express emotional turmoil with a certain spring-loaded tension – the knowledge that, at any point, they might shift their stance – means that no particular song or dynamic shift feels particularly significant. The album loses a sense of spontaneity; so many of the songs on Where The Heart Is make the leap from roaring rage to soft and slow that they begin to feel a little repetitive.
Perhaps that’s the point. There’s a suite of songs in the middle of the album – “High Hopes” into “Dog Song” into “Sucker Punch” into “Sometimes” – that all make use of this particular structure, and their proximity to each other makes the repetition feel more evident.
That’s not to say that they’re completely identical. “Sometimes,” unlike the twisty “High Hopes,” is a delightfully straightforward banger with a massive hook… until the outro suddenly slips into slow, dreamy guitar texture. “Dog Song” and “Sucker Punch” incorporate math-y time signature shifts, and the former’s self-deprecating humor offers some unexpected levity while the latter’s crunching chorus recalls 90s grunge.
But all of these songs approach mental and emotional distress with a sense of weary determination, strengthened by the arrangements’ sudden shifts from raging, mosh-worthy velocity to spacey outros. One lyric on “Dog Song” is particularly telling: “Highs and lows, they go something like this/Round and around and around.”
By stacking all of these songs together, Sweet Pill makes sure that any sense of musical instability balances out over the course of the album. If living means becoming attuned to the ups and downs of regular life, and learning to deal with the ways that your individual moods shift, then this sequence mimics the learning process. Individually, the songs are technically impressive and their rapid changes in mood and texture can feel overwhelming; together, they paint a portrait that’s less intense than it is reassuring. Each particular mood swing might feel apocalyptic in the moment, but they’re all part of a larger story, all in a sense training you how to punch through the next one.
But “Diamond Eyes,” the third single, signals a shift by departing from the record’s usual soundscape. Instead of gleaming electric guitars and crashing drums, it builds itself on a gentle, rippling acoustic progression, while the drums march forward with slow determination. Youssef’s presence elsewhere is assured and theatrical, with an ironic edge that lets her distance herself from her lyrics; but here she adopts a softer tone and shares vocal duties with McCall, trading lines back and forth with him throughout. McCall’s voice is thinner than Youssef’s, his tone more plainspoken, and he lends the song a straightforward intimacy that plays against Youssef’s dynamism.
The song’s lyrics cryptically parse a breakup, using an image of a diamond to represent something beautiful yet out of reach, strong and sharp but also fragile; McCall sings about wanting it, Youssef responds with a line about it cutting her. When Youssef arrives at the most melodramatic line – “What state am I gonna die?” – the song explodes around her, like the record’s other dynamic shifts are playing out in reverse. Then it screeches to a halt, reconstitutes itself as if nothing had happened, and closes as softly as it began.
Here, the band’s combative toughness feels like it’s pitted against an enemy that they can’t quite get around. The song’s reversal of the previous suite’s dynamics implies that the band’s real anger isn’t expressed in soaring choruses and raging guitars but in the quieter, softer moments that come in between. When you’re throwing punches, you’re releasing energy – even if the fight hurts, it can still feel cathartic. If you’re ruminating by yourself, that energy has nowhere to go except inward.
But the album’s final song implies that that thwarted catharsis can be redirected into a more durable, holistic strength. “Cut” is one of the shortest tracks, tough and coiled and compact. “Took a step outside myself,” Youssef sings, “And felt quite sorry for that sucker.” Kearney’s drums pound like a heartbeat or a headache, while the guitars reverberate outwards as if the whole sonic field is expanding. The song builds and builds, Youssef’s voice rising from a whisper to a wail. Finally, as the guitars swell up to full volume on one heavy, serrated chord, she yells, “You can’t cut me out.” Knees bent, hips lowered, feet planted. Ready to fight.
Sweet Pill’s Where the Heart Is is out today (May 25th, 2022) via Topshelf Records. Support the release on bandcamp here, follow the band on Twitter and Instagram, and check out their June 2022 US tour dates.