Album Review: Black Polish – Forest

[Riptide; 2024]

Springtime sometimes catches things out. A warm, March day will trick hibernating insects whose tiny fists will shake at the sky when cold immediately returns. Gary Larson once drew canine orange-grove owners inspecting the blooms on cat-producing trees while preemptively worrying about an unexpected frost.  

We remember the pandemic as a human problem, though it also bedeviled the other organisms. In 2007, journalist Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us hypothesized how nature would reclaim the planet in our absence and some of it ominously played out in the first lockdown months. Wild animals adventured deep into public places with fewer people around, while bugs bred in empty buildings and other scavengers revived their foraging instincts once the gravy train of restaurant trash went AWOL. 

This rebirth ended, of course, when unintentionally stockpiled disposable income converted itself into campers, boats, and secluded second homes. Normal service resumed. Nature shook its tiny fists. 

The pandemic also fooled people into thinking their springs had begun in earnest. Then only 15, Jayden Nicole Binnix (aka Black Polish, they/them) balanced a developing identity, mind, body, and curiosity on a knife’s edge; all of it was fragile and untested and about to be blown up. While they can claim to have beaten most of America out of the cities, their rural Maryland refuge turned into a mental prison. Acquiring hylophobia (fear of forests), Binnix has explained that their primary stress was getting lost in the woods and being unable to find a way back to the start. (No breadcrumbs in the pantry… supply chain issues?)

Forest (Monsters Live In The Trees) intelligently encapsulates this real-life allegory in nine sequential chapters. Modern, guitar-based indie pop with an emphasis on pop, the album draws on the upbeat-music/sad-lyrics structure that has been a genre mainstay since at least Pet Sounds. Binnix doesn’t try to dazzle with wordplay or gratuitously curse to demonstrate seriousness. Forest can be startlingly forthright and objective, as if penned by a lifelong Reuters stringer reading their own psychological profile. 

Opener “Monsters In The Trees” misleads in this regard. Vocal harmonies, heavy reverb, and a nearly leaden atmosphere – if this was a musical you’d worry you’d walked in late. The hallucinatory imagery portends a style that doesn’t make it to three minutes. The magnetic “Birthwright” feels like a more proper beginning, with stronger ties to what’s coming later. Its ukulele bars are a precocious feint, whereas the drums throughout the album represent the pounding in their brain. Binnix patiently prays to the God of the faith in which they were raised, “Give me reason / I wanna be more than just your creation / Give me purpose / I’m more than just a shadow of an empty person”. Though a rift between family and sexual orientation grows later in the album, “Birthwright” depicts an empty vessel not wanting to be filled, but desperate to patch a leak. 

An ironic, shuffling beat underpins “Void”, pushing them to dance before they’re ready to walk out of the bedroom. The physique that matures in the mirror seems to mock an unprepared brain, reminiscent of The Replacements’ “Sixteen Blue” and dragging church back into the frame: “I was raised in Christianity / But I fear that Jesus hated me”. With their confidence goes Binnix’s resolve to behave with any sort of predictability, regardless of what they demand from others. “Graves” epitomises this struggle as Binnix grapples with someone equally recalcitrant. The ominous encroachment of electric guitar is the crackling of a branch about to break. There’s a similarity to the Genesis Owusu album STRUGGLER filtered through the fragility of Arlo Parks. 

Forest leaves open ends and the branch never completely snaps off: it dangles. “Purple Skies” offers escape from jail but not escapism. A bassline borrowed from the New Order school channels post-adolescent anxiety, a place where she chokes on the weight of air. “For a feeling of self love / I would give it all” echoes like a mantra more than a plea. Yet the gloom gets interrupted by a belief in changing weather, or at least a tomorrow: “If I’m still breathing fine / And keep myself alive / Then I’ll let you know,” Binnix promises, tiny fists unclenching, exhales not so visible in the warming atmosphere. 

“I’ll let you know,” they repeat. Springtime is coming.