Album Review: claire rousay – it was always worth it

[Longform Editions; 2020]

Some things are meant to hurt.

As much of a staple as the ‘break up album’ is, as much solace as listeners and artists alike find in the form, it’s the rare work that truly transcends the personal to become universal. From Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks to Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire, the list is decidedly short.

Remarkably prolific San Antonio-based ambient and sound collage artist claire rousay, at least on paper, isn’t the most likely candidate to join those hallowed ranks, but let’s just get it out of the way early: with it was always worth it, she certainly has.

In an ever-shifting, occasionally harsh soundscape, she recounts the gradual dissolution of a clearly long-lasting, deeply intimate relationship. The single, 20-minute track ranges from soft ambient to noisy drone to found-sound moments of radio interplay. Near its midway point, we can partly hear a distant, muffled conversation, one that feels like it could be the final meeting between a pairing. You can practically hear the love leaving the room.

The music drifts between the identifiable and the unknowable, fragmented, much as a broken memory is after a long-term love comes to a close. Because, after all, does such a love truly ever end? As they say, we don’t truly ever fall out of love. We simply allow enough time to pass to feel, at the least, okay.

The music of it was always worth it exists within this plain, within a rush of emotion and memory that drifts between the current and the long lost. To achieve this bracing result, rousay employs a text-to-speech program, a cold, robotic companion to read hollow phrases that insufficiently grasp at what’s being lost, like “I appreciate you and I know things suck a lot right now but our friendship is valuable and all the work we put into it over the years was worth it,” and “thank you for making me feel truly appreciated and cared for. I have never really had that. It is like a dream come true.” Counterintuitively, these feel more deeply emotive than any natural reading of the same words could hope to. In the sad, hollow ring of the mechanical ‘voice’, you can feel the futility of a potential ‘forever’ thrown asunder.

For rousay personally, the release deals with the loss of a six-year relationship. For this writer, it deeply echoed my own recent loss of a four-year connection. There’s no real quantifying such a shattering loss, and therein lies the power of her work here: it doesn’t attempt to define anything, it doesn’t display, it doesn’t even truly attempt to understand: it simply feels. It breathes with fatigued, embattled life, it embodies the sort of loss we have all felt at one time or another. It is heartbreak, and a hope for healing. Or, at the least, to persevere.