While strong independent female figures are fairly common in the indie-music world (PJ Harvey, Laura Marling), it’s not very often you come across a matriarchal figure. And really that’s not too surprising as you rarely associate mothers with “cool” music you would listen to, but instead (if anything) with introspective and thoughtful offerings. And equally unsurprising is that these tend to come from veterans in the music world, as world weary mothers tend to be a bit on in their years (Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor). Former Marzuki member Shannon Stephens could well start edging her way towards this kind of genre, especially with her third album Pull It Together, which seems to be an ode and/or dedication to family life and her daughter.
The album seems to separate itself into three categories, all of which are central to Stephens’ own life. Firstly there’s the aforementioned motherly angle, where she offers advice to her daughter about growing up: on “Girl” has she reassures her daughter that although there will be hardships, they won’t be faced alone (“[Remember] that when you walk through the flames/ I’ll walk through them too/ And I believe in you”); “Down The Drain and It’s Gone” has Stephens asserting herself as an authority figure while also conceding that she doesn’t have an answer for every question (“Don’t ask me why child/ It just goes down the drain and it’s gone”). Elsewhere she’s dealing with the trails of ordinary life, from taking care of her other half on “What Love Looks Like,” to dismissing the importance of appearances (“Your Fabulous Friends”). “Your Fabulous Friends” turns out to be a cleverly tongue-in-cheek track where Stephens turns her back on what society expects her to be, where she seems nonchalant about “wearing the same thing [she] wore last time” or not having “a great vacation story.” Even the twanging acoustic guitars sound a little sarcastic.
In between all this she’s contemplating life and the cards she’s been dealt. On “Faces Like Ours,” with Bonnie “Prince” Billy by her side, she addresses social and racial inequality, while “Out of Sight” has her claiming that “the lord owes me a living” because she’s spent her life being “meek and mild.” Thankfully she never gets too preachy – “Faces Like Ours” is about as sententious as it gets here, and it’s a gentle piano and guitar track. Instead she always keeps her feet on the ground, using light humour and casual observations about day to day life to keep herself from self-aggrandising.
Style-wise, Stephens never veers into anything that doesn’t sound out of place with her warm, friendly voice. She sounds at her best when she got a band behind her (Sufjan Stevens’ bandmates Jeff Fielder and James McAlister, no less — the benefits of being signed to Asthmatic Kitty, I suppose). “Care of You” and “What Love Looks Life” are some of the best examples: the former gets by with some underrated drumming and banjo playing, while “What Love Looks Like” welcomes some electric guitar and male backing vocals into the mix. When she dials things down, she still sounds lovely (the wistful closing track “Responsible Too Long”), but there’s some material that dithers. Funnily enough it’s the tracks with guest players that are guilty of this: while “Cold November” has some wonderful Bon Iver-esque vocal harmonies (courtesy of DM Stith), it doesn’t really go anywhere, while earlier mentioned “Faces like Ours” is disappointingly forgettable.
It’s when I keep in mind the idea of Pull It Together being an album for her daughter that I enjoy the album most, as it’s in this light that it sounds at its most charming and likeable. It allows other tracks to take on a different kind of meaning; for example, when she sings “I like to pay your bills/ and set out your vitamin pills/ cause that’s what love looks like” on “What Love Looks Like” it sounds like she’s saying that love is about being ordinary, and being happy to do the little mundane tasks for another person. It’s the kind of album I imagine Stephens’ daughter listening to when she’s older, and taking life lessons from, but also cringing at when the Danielson-worthy sing-along “Buddy Up To The Bully” plays, which is likeable in a corny sort of way, but hard to take seriously with lines like “open up the contents of your lunch that he likes to munch.” That’s mums for you, though, always there to embarrass you.
But at the very least Pull It Together sounds like it might be a family affair. Stephens was raised in a musical family, and on opening track “Wax and Feathers” she pays homage to her father, who she thanks for making her the way she is (“Like Gabriel/ a little tattered/ a little weathered”). On the next track she addresses the hardships of raising a family, and how it has taken its toll (“I’ve been burning the candle at both ends…I’ve been hoping for some help from my friends”), but as the album plays she sounds like she settling into the mother role, before realising at the end – aforementioned “Responsible Too Long” – that she has to let go and let her daughter grow on her own. Who knows, in the future it might inspire her daughter to create her own version of Pull It Together, which, if it ends up sounding anything like this, would be no bad thing.