Skullcrusher is the project of Helen Ballentine, an LA-based art student turned singer-songwriter. Her self-titled EP—the first release of her brand-new career—captures the period of uncertainty following her change of direction, and finds her looking inward while on the precipice of what is essentially the great unknown.
While her striking moniker and the comically metal-like font in which it’s displayed on the album cover would lead you to believe otherwise, she sings delicate folk songs that have a warmly intimate atmosphere to them. Ballentine’s combination of softly strummed guitar, enveloping synths, hints of piano, and multi-tracked vocals immediately bring to mind Phoebe Bridgers, another young indie folk singer-songwriter based in LA. But Ballentine has a unique perspective, citing a wide range of influences: Nick Drake, ambient electronica, and most curiously the Czech new-wave film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, all of which work their way into the tranquility and subtle darkness that her music exudes.
The four songs that make up Skullcrusher are at once both intimate and wide open, filled with questions and ponderings about life’s uncertainties. “Do you think that I’m going places?” she asks on stunning opener “Places/Plans”. The whole song is written in the second person, seemingly addressed to a specific someone, yet these questions and statements seem just as much for the listener and perhaps even for Ballentine herself. “Come in, the window’s open and I’m lying alone / Let’s sit, cuz I don’t have any plans for tomorrow,” she sings, inviting us into the space of calm, aimless reflection that her songs occupy. In the song’s music video, one Helen Ballentine sits on a tree-swing and stares into space; another sits on a picnic blanket and munches on a loaf a bread, while a third slowly saws a piece of wood in half and a fourth hesitantly opens a window, then disappears. Mundanities like these can be generative of the kinds of questions that prompted the songs on Skullcrusher—questions that we all have, but that take a subtle kind of creativity to turn into the warm, quiet textures of this EP.
One of the album’s most intriguing songs is “Two Weeks in December”. In the span of 56 seconds, Ballentine paints some rather vivid pictures: “On the night that we met / I looked cool rolling cigarettes / You were fooled by my jokes / I was too, I didn’t know you,” she sings softly and simply, backed only by acoustic guitar. Then the arrangement opens up, incorporating piano, synths and vocal harmonies into what sounds like a pre-chorus: “And I woke up alone / In a frozen broken home / And my cousin gave me the flu / So I flew back to LA but not back to you…” And just as our interest has been piqued by this series of seemingly introductory scenes, the song abruptly ends, leaving just a few synth notes echoing in the distance. On first listen, the song feels somewhat unfinished, but there’s also something ingenious about it: Ballentine gives us only the beginnings of this story, leaving the rest up to our imagination.
“Two Weeks in December” is marked by a lot of the same qualities that characterize this project as a whole. With Skullcrusher, Ballentine does not attempt to give us a fully-formed artistic statement, but rather a glimmering of ideas, collected and patiently fleshed out during a time of transition and introspection.
Clocking in at less than 12 minutes, Skullcrusher’s most obvious flaw is that it leaves you wanting more. But this is perhaps by design: the EP’s ephemerality further reinforces its fixation on the moments of life’s gray, in-between areas in which we take time to look within ourselves only to find more questions unanswered. Furthermore, Ballentine is fairly new to songwriting, and seems comfortable letting her ideas develop slowly alongside her audience’s intrigue. Ultimately, Skullcrusher gives you a small yet satisfying taste of Ballentine’s blossoming internal world—it will be exciting to see where she takes us next.