The day before Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter play in Salt Lake City, F.W. Murnau’s vampire movie Nosferatu plays at the Tower Theatre. Creepy relatives on Thanksgiving, German expressionist horror on Friday, and Sykes on Saturday. It’s kinda perfect, because Sykes works with light and shade in such a way that you might say The Sweet Hereafter makes chiaroscuro music. Or expressionist alt-country—Nosferatu folk songs.
“Come to Mary, she don’t mind,” she sings on “Marble Son.” Couched in dreamy psych-twang, her sweetly sepulchral intonations elicit images of a dark silhouette caught in the proverbial brilliant white light at the end of a dark hallway or tunnel. It’s not an evil, or even portentous, song—it’s more of a prayer. That’s the gorgeous duality that draws you to Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter.
It saturates each of the band’s four albums, this beautiful eeriness. It’s unsettling, yet comforting, and more the latter than the former. Sykes lays everything out in thinly veiled poetry where you know exactly what she’s getting at but, “It can mean a million things,” Sykes says while sipping her morning coffee. To her, the song suggests that someone waits to receive you in the afterlife—a comfort, but she’s uncertain who awaits. “I’m not really a religious person,” Sykes says, “but I do think that there’s this sort of metaphysical love that’s out there, that we’re all trying to get, on some level. Which, to me, is probably what religion is.”
On Marble Son, Sykes ratchets up the contrast. It’s an album that almost wasn’t, given that its birth came at the death of her long relationship with guitarist/partner Phil Wandscher. “We have never been closer to sounding like the sweet hereafter than with what we have created here,” Sykes says in her official bio. And how. Marble Son is heavy and dark, but not in the way The Sweet Hereafter’s associations with doom bands Black Mountain, Boris and Sunn O)))) lead you to believe. It’s burdened.
“Why mirror all that moves just to soothe the one who’s lacking?” Sykes asks on “Hushed by Devotion.” On the title track, she ostensibly asks Wandscher, “Why can’t I love you more? ... I wish I’d found you beautiful before.” And in “Be It Me, Or Be It None,” she sings, “There’s nothing left back here for the silent one who stands, I will disappear.”
Put yourself in her position, or Wandscher’s, and imagine what went on as they worked toward keeping at least their fruitful musical association intact. You can almost feel the angular creep looming over them both, crushing them under an invisible but tangible weight. Sykes says sessions with Wandscher often devolved into hissing and the spitting of epithets as they purged themselves. Yet they made it through, and on the other side of it, they bask in the bright light, a renewal, a truly sweet hereafter where—despite the demise of their romance—they’ve made their magnum opus. And to the delight of their fans, they’ll continue to explore the relationship between light and dark.
“The older you get, as you go through life,” Sykes says, “the palette becomes a monolithic slab. It’s no longer this little teeny, whimsical, watercolor palette. I can’t fathom being able to mirror that emotional weight of living with anything that didn’t portray that whole spectrum of what life is ... the breadth of human emotion.” People, she says, tend to oversimplify and think of things in general happy/sad terms and “dismiss this whole middle ground. But to me, a melancholic feeling, that’s a very beautiful feeling that I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
JESSE SYKES & THE SWEET HEREAFTER
w/ The Devil Whale, The Awful Truth
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Saturday, Nov. 26, 9 p.m.
$8 in advance, $10 day of show