Album Review: Half Waif – The Caretaker

[ANTI-; 2020]

Nandi Rose refuses to be pinned down. It may feel like a clumsy metaphor for an album that largely deals with isolation, loneliness, and sagging relationships either fraying or being shattered completely, but it fits her project Half Waif’s growth on new album The Caretaker perfectly.

Whereas her previous album, Lavender, had its own baggage, it was a grandly produced affair, by far Half Waif’s “biggest” sounding project to date, with abundant musical and technical flourishes. The Caretaker, by comparison, feels ornate, nearly fragile. To be sure, it still boasts a layered, charming sense of musicality, but it’s largely Rose’s voice and words that do the heavy lifting.

Indeed, this is the most lyrically complex and emotional the singer-songwriter has ever allowed herself to go. Considering that her last LP dealt with her grandmother’s impending death, inherited generational pain, and feelings of eternal immigration, that’s no small feat.

That sense of being a refugee remains in The Caretaker, but more than ever before, Rose seems to have found her voice. The way she continually mixes the mundane and profound often has a startling effect on the listener, immediately painting a picture for each and every one of us. Simply observe the vivid blend of daily functionality and existential despair of “Ordinary Talk”:

“Sitting in the dark,
Dreaming up a song,
Crying in my coffee,
Doing it all wrong.
Everybody knows,
it’s Ordinary talk.

Walking to the lake,
Getting in my car,
Folding up the laundry,
Takin’ it too hard.
Everybody knows it’s
How we fall apart.”

Songs and words such as these hit like gentle wallops throughout The Caretaker. Rose never forces her way through the door, instead gradually closing the distance between artist and listener. She often slips in the most piercing, brutal insights as nearly-asides, consistently catching the listener off guard, unable to erect defenses against her stark humanity (see: “I have lost your friendship / What does that say about me?,” from “In August”).

After all, as we age, taking on shame and heaving burdens all our own, do we not begin to shelter ourselves from insights that might prove too painful or truthful? We begin to paw nervously, or even flee from, ideas that might challenge us, rather than charging at them head on with the curiosity of a younger soul.

This is a work that fears no such boundary. Whatever shelter you’ve constructed, The Caretaker is gentle enough to enter without raising it, but so overwhelming that you’ll soon no longer feel comfortable there. Should you open yourself up to it, this is music for finally taking a long hard look at oneself, and, perhaps, beginning anew.

As the album continues, gaining assurance that it’s taken hold, the emotional stakes rise. “Brace” mourns a friendship divided between closed doors, literal and figurative, begging for understanding and reconnection. “Generation”, meanwhile, finds the album’s heroine literally cursing the sky: “Shouting at clouds: I’ve done enough now!”

The Caretaker is a paradoxical work. It’s both at once a retreat towards stripped-down simplicity and the most expressive, heartfelt reservoir of longing Half Waif has yet tapped into. This is a record that begs patience and understanding of its listener, but for those that put in the time required, it offers the most bountiful emotional rewards of Nandi Rose’s career yet. This is an album for being lost, as well as healing. Much like its title, it is what you need it to be.