Mol Sullivan occupies this world with delicacy, treading carefully as she navigates life through all the changes it brings. On her debut album GOOSE, the Cincinnati singer/songwriter paints small portraits of her life across the past 15 years; capturing her journey into sobriety, reassessing friendships that reveal themselves as problematic, and learning to exist as a different version of the same person. Self-described as a “long exposure photograph,” Sullivan stares long and hard into the past here, but importantly also at herself in the mirror in the present. To paraphrase a sentiment in a review of Andrew Haigh’s latest film, All Of Us Strangers (which, thematically, could be said to have similar shades to GOOSE), there’s an important distinction between living with the past, but not living in it. Sullivan explores and journeys through the in between.
The battle between past and present comes in the form of a question that sits near the centre of the album. On the title track Sullivan asks “Am I the swan or just a goose?”; one bird symbolising wisdom, grace, and balance, the other an emblem of aggressive, territorial, and boisterous behaviour. The transition isn’t an easy one. On opening track “Still Tryin’” she navigates the tough day-to-day troubles of new sobriety, finding new meaning in the unremarkable features of every day while struggling underneath. (The song’s video captures the quiet suffering with plain faced honesty.) “Still I’m tryin’ to hold on,” she chimes in the chorus, the unspoken pain hiding in the bottom of her voice as swaggering electric guitar chords sweep the song along. There is no grand finale or wild revelation come the end of the track; it just concludes and moves on, another day lying ahead.
It’s part of the process, getting there one day at a time. On the sleepy, somnambulant sway of “Ask”, Sullivan aims herself quietly: “I wanna work real hard / and make some promises I can keep,” she sings as soft horns, woodwinds, and strings streak across the track like rays of morning light. “Like This Now” has her pondering “Really I’m fine / But how is this happening?” as watery baroque instrumentation creates an unease. When that pain surfaces more, it feels pointed but still restrained. On “Eggshells” she’s stuck in the middle of a toxic friendship, singing “Why’s it gotta be so hard?” with an exasperated tone, but it could equally apply to Sullivan’s own internal war going on underneath the surface.
The troubling relationships along the way don’t make things any easier. “Lamb” is perhaps the head of the album’s anger, letting the frustration come to a confrontation as angular strings tip the stomping drums off their axis. “Did you spit to spite me? / Did you hit to fight me?”, she seethes. On “Cautiously” she’s more tender. Over doting synths and guitar strums she calmly asserts “I’ve not forgotten how to love / but I cannot love you anymore,” stepping back from a relationship that is no longer healthy. Similarly on “Marrying Type” she contemplates two opposing sides of the problem: “Jealous of love / Love to be wanted.”
The years of her life Sullivan captures are ones that are underlined with change, but, as captured on GOOSE, these changes help breed self-care and self-love. It’s the person in front of the mirror that matters most – even if that person is the problem sometimes. “Looking for a saviour / Getting in my own damn way,” she fatigues on the woozy “Cannonball”, leaning into the fallible themes of the record and realising that sometimes you are the problem.
GOOSE is a human and reflective record, and consequently spends a notable chunk of its time simmering gently. Its central section unfortunately gets a little too caught in lulling tempos and light crescendos, which does help more pointed moments like “Lamb” and “Eggshells” stick out more, but does also stretch the time between the album’s best moments which bookend the record. In particular “Goose” charms with its Joanna Newsom-like elegance and playful lyricism as light smears of pedal steel guitar and spiralling strings like ribbon streamers enchant the song’s refrain. At the other end, six minute “Marrying Type”’s slow march, bobbing piano, and wordless vocal melodies make the track alluring and intoxicating like a strong perfume. But if you are ready to sit with GOOSE all the way through and give it attention, then the textures that the chamber pop ornamentation create and the considered lyrics do reap rewards in themselves.
Come the end of the record, “Biting Your Teeth” has Sullivan worn down; going back to a pivotal moment before the path into sobriety officially began, it flips the perspective to accentuate the journey travelled. Piano chords dissolve into an earthy dusk of processed synths and voices; “It’s like biting your teeth / Hope it’s over soon,” she sings, exhausted, a send off to a past life she can’t afford not to leave behind. The goose may not have become the swan quite yet, but there’s transformation happening; the album is a revelation that it’s not always black and white, be it with the end results or the choices we have to make. Sullivan recognises there’s sacrifice to be made along the way (saying goodbye to toxic friends or those who aren’t conducive to her sobriety) but it’s a delicate process. Sullivan is still treading carefully after GOOSE is through, but she’s also walking more confidently.