Heal, the new fourth effort from Timothy Showalter's Strand of Oaks project, clarifies its grand intent in the majestic opening track, "Goshen '97," which retells his small-town Indiana upbringing as if it were a comic book origin issue: "I was writing in the basement / Buying Casios with my friend / Then I found my dad's old tape machine / That's where the magic began."
The record continues the Hoosier's autobiography in increasingly adventurous tracks, like the Velvet Underground-influenced "Plymouth," the arena-sized "Shut In," and the Gothic-synth title track, which clinically discusses his wife's infidelity at the beginning of their relationship. By the time Showalter finally forgives himself — and others — on the closing piano dirge "Wait for Love," his sweeping vision has transformed him into a folk-rock Andrew W.K., and made Heal one of the best records of 2014.
Another cut, the Neil Young-loping "JM," celebrates the record collection that helped him cope with his dismal life as a kid. Its initials stand for Jason Molina, the late musician of Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. renown.
"He passed away last year, way too young, and it really hit me, like 'Man — there's no more records. It's done,'" says the 32-year-old Showalter, who now resides in Philadelphia. "It was really tough for me, so I wrote this song as a eulogy for somebody who I didn't know personally. But it sure as shit felt like it. I mean, having somebody in your life making records for 15 years is pretty powerful."
Showalter is no stranger to the concept of mortality. It was his own near-death experience last December that gave him the motivation to take chances with the Heal mixes, which he'd originally orchestrated in a more straightforward style before his life flashed before his eyes. Ironically, he adds, his reflective new material had been penned before the incident. But on Christmas day, he and his wife were driving back to Pennsylvania from Goshen when they hit a patch of black ice.
"We slid from the eastbound lane to the westbound lane, landed perpendicular to the yellow line, and just at that moment a truck was passing another truck, and we got hit simultaneously by the both of them," he remembers with a shudder.
And that should have been all she wrote for the singer. One semi drove directly over the back of the car, while the second smashed into its engine, sending the tiny Honda spinning into a guardrail, and Showalter into unconsciousness. Imagining the worst, his wife watched as the jaws of life pried his body from the crushed front seat. "There was a lot of blood, and I wasn't moving," he says. "There is no possible way that we should have survived. But I'm fine now."
In fact, two days later, Showalter was back at work with producer John Congleton on Heal, taking new risks with the record that he'd never dared to attempt previously. At the time, he'd broken all the ribs on his right side, suffered a concussion, and could barely move one arm.
"I think the mixture of almost dying and heavy amounts of pain medication let me approach the mixing session with the attitude of, 'Who gives a fuck? Let's do whatever we want!' I said, 'I want this to be as loud and visceral as possible — I don't want Heal to be played in the background at somebody's party."