I imagine Chicago winters to be both majestic and merciless. Outside, from the windowpane of some warm sanctuary, everything is coated in gorgeous, glimmering pale white, even the darkest of night skies. Once you’re compelled to step outside, the bitter frostbite seizes your exposed nerves while thick cascades of snow block your doorway. Over time, the indecision of wanting to stay inside or venture forth becomes a constant buzz in the back of your brain. Chicago stalwart Macie Stewart seems to concur on “Tone Pome”: ‘“Snow falling on the ground / Effervescent town / Riding in the spring to bring another wound /To bloom again.”
Stewart is part of a tight-knit, prolific and ever-flourishing scene of musicians who thrive off collaboration in any setting, from squats to art spaces to big festival stages. As a gifted multi-instrumentalist and songsmith, Stewart feels just as at home playing improv music with the likes of Ken Vandermark as she is arranging string sections for SZA. Jumping from one project to the next in such high velocity, often triumphing over volatile weather conditions, does make it tricky to look back and reflect every now and then.
Which is exactly what Stewart has set her heart on doing with her first solo album Mouth Full Of Glass. Contrary to the taut noise pop contraptions of Ohmme, the genre-bending duo she forms with equally gifted peer Sima Cunningham, this album glides along with lush, unhurried candor, often juxtaposing Stewart’s threadbare picking with majestic cascades of strings and horns. Sonically, it’s easy to draw comparisons to records like Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left or Nico’s Chelsea Girl.
It feels not just apt that Mouth Full Of Glass arrives right at the cusp of autumn. Over and beyond that, these post-pandemic days have caused a strange tectonic shift in our social lives, a blank nothingness causing people to reflect deeper and longer on themselves than normal. With no branches left to mount, Stewart dwindled down to her own roots whilst recording these eight evocative songs. “I didn’t know who I was or what I sounded like as an individual,” she commented in the press release. “I was floating aimlessly and feeling like so many of my choices weren’t made for myself, but rather for the people with whom I shared a partnership.”
You could interpret that both on a professional and personal level. On the sweeping opener “Finally”, Stewart immediately threads the needle on some of her own character flaws: “I’m wrong / I know it / But not willing to show / Till finally I break the string.” The arrangement is very lighthearted and sultry, almost like a Caetano Veloso song, but the moment Stewart utters “break the string” a resplendent flourish of strings appears as if astray from some archaic musical score. Breaking a string is considered a common occupational hazard where Stewart is from, but the arrangement suggests a deeper admission: when one catches themselves simply going through the motions, and when one puts spirit, intent and individuality behind something. It seems like a fickle balance, especially for musicians who do a lot of commissioned work like Stewart.
On the acoustic “Garter Snake”, she slyly references a nimble creature who can adapt to any condition, often in proximity to water, which seems to be a pretty apt analogy for her own situation as a Chicago musician who has blended in well within other people’s artistic ambitions while prolonging her own. “I am addicted to indecision / I am addicted and I feel wicked” she realises, words which resonate strongly in a time when you’re rediscovering who you are without being entangled in a cobweb of friends, family, acquaintances and loved ones.
Naturally a lot of songs start with the stillness of guitars and voices, with the sporadic unfurling of a quagmire of instrumentation that feels both chaotic and concisely placed. These moments of sonorous splendor are decisively brief and feel like imaginary projections in a solitary place. On the dream-like “Mouthful Of Glass” it swells up to something wholly surreal, only to ebb back into its essential cut-and-dry melody in its final seconds. Sonically, this song reminds very much of Beck’s forlorn masterpiece Sea Change, but instead of letting melancholy fester inward, Stewart funnels it outward, reaching through the void.
The analgesic “Golden (For Mark)” seems to address the loss of a child in her vicinity, wondering what could have been of a life of endless potential. It’s especially moving, considering how Stewart pretty much learned music while learning how to speak as an infant at age three: “Frozen time now forever a child / As I grow you stay just the same.” “Where We Will Live” tentatively dreams of an alternative to the scrambling, rambunctious touring lifestyle she has upheld, a place with more room to settle and grow. “Tree of life with ripened vines that bear no fruit,” she sings as a chorus of soft horns responds like a beckoning inner voice.
“What Will I Do” appears to contemplate a past relationship with regret of not knowing if there is anything better waiting on the horizon. Just past the half way mark of the song, the music briefly turns silent apart from the solemn whoosh of the wind resounding outside the doorway. But Stewart finds comfort in her own personal growth in ultimately realising something that may have been taken for granted before.
Those looking for affirmations and rallying points on Mouth Full Of Glass will find them more in its soothing, intricate instrumentation than its lyrical content. This is a record of soul searching, remembering stolen moments and quiet dreaming, chasing down stark past digressions and embryonic futures. A soothing palette cleanser in which all the personal lamentations buried deep within years of chasing the next adventure unravel and manifest naturally.
The album’s closer “Wash It Away” pulls out all the stops in utilising Stewart’s versatile gifts as an arranger, musician and songwriter, sounding like her own makeshift version of a pop opus in the vein of “A Day In The Life”, bringing the added compositional muscle of Ayanna Woods to the fray. The song strikes as a recollection and rediscovery of one’s own potency and bare essence, and knowing that that’s worth fighting for despite the possible blowback it can invoke. The composition now serves the individual instead of vice versa. It feels like an awakening to a new day, always abound in potential, to which Stewart expresses optimism: “The notes are on the page / Waiting every day / For a fuller life.”
Mouth Full Of Glass – in all its inherent flaws, unfinished musings and cul de sacs – inspires listeners to embrace that inquisitive sentiment amidst the warnings of another cold, sometimes unforgiving winter inching closer and closer. Every time you venture outside, the next day, your footprints are erased, leaving no evidence of your previous journey. Indeed, sometimes the unknowing can be the most comforting thing imaginable. Especially now.