Perhaps the most universal human emotion is grief. Everyone will die, and so, too, will everyone experience loss. And yet, while it is something so widely understood and understandable, each person’s grief, each person’s pain, is their own. Such can also be said about isolation — as billions of people are experiencing quarantine, this notion of universality doesn’t mean shit for individual solitude. These unique anguishes are at the core of X Harlow’s new album, Anchorite, a synthesized book of hymns set out to make sense of mortality and misfortune — not so much for any audience, but rather, for the project’s creator, Justin Schmidt. They did this thing in the early months of the year, before any notion of the magnitude of catastrophe to come was a blip on the radar. Such pain has existed long before this pandemic and all the rest of the year’s countless atrocities, and it will exist long after the earth has healed and forgotten until humanity repeats its same blunders again.
Mournful, moody synth swells on opener “Alfred Dies” set the tone for the rest of the songs. There’s an eerie weightlessness that’s always present, even with the entrance of infectious drums on “Pyre.” A steady pulse that will sustain and console, both Schmidt and listener alike, again and again. You can almost visualize purgatorial lost souls, dancing achingly together as their wounded vocals hover overhead, inescapable. These expressions of hurting are deeply personal, yet welcoming and even danceable. That they are sharing this pain at all is something of an honor. It speaks to us, certainly, but we can never know fully what is, or was, at hand.
High-pitched, affected, seemingly otherworldly vocal gesticulations, intertwine with glowing auras and meditative keys on “Glide.” They act as backtracks and experimental interludes, like funereal chanting from some ancient desert. Mechanized percussion serves as prodding in the pitch dark — a radar for the underworld. It’s eerie, yet comforting, a foreshadowing of sorts to the gorgeous choral evangelizing on “Von Bingen’s Prayer.” A psalm for the dead; a sermon to a hundred thousand lost souls. An urgent rhythm starts in, as Schmidt prays in hushed lamentations, to whom we don’t know, for healing and protection. Glitching and warping breach the serenity, so slightly, on “Ascension” and “Eyes Out,” like a television going in and out of focus.
By the album’s end, it’s as though we’ve just finished a how-to book for mourning, or just for getting through extreme difficulty, and we realize, this is what we’ve needed and will need again. The impossible peace of “Elysium” carries us out, a weightless procession of soothing tones. Our head touches the soil as it dissipates into the ether, and we are laid to rest.
Essential tracks: “Pyre,” “Von Bingen’s Prayer,” “Elysium”