On the verge of my 30th birthday, I returned to Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan to see and hear Land of Talk touring their latest release, Life After Youth, in the company of a dear friend and birthday buddy. Since seeing Tegan & Sara for my first show there in 2005, Bowery Ballroom has long been one of my favorite venues in any of the cities in which I’ve lived. With a capacity of around 600, the venue is big enough to have a balcony yet small enough to feel intimate—making it perfect for Land of Talk. Since 2006, this under-appreciated indie rock project built around the simultaneously urgent and inviting vocals and guitar chops of Elizabeth Powell has gathered an incredibly loyal fan base. I have been a fan of the band since April 2007, when I heard the original lineup of Powell on guitar, Bucky Wheaton on drums, and Chris McCarron on bass for the first time across the river at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ. Introducing myself to Powell immediately after the set, I felt a pull and sense of connection with the music (and with Powell, the heart and soul of the band) that my awkward 19-year-old/on the verge of turning 20 self could not yet fully articulate. I would go to see and hear Land of Talk another five times in 2007 alone—and would continue to grow my 20s with them even after they went on hiatus in 2011. Once you throw yourself into the immersive experience that is this band’s albums and live shows, Land of Talk are a band that inspire you to believe more both in yourself and in the possibility of something bigger than yourself (love, friendship, creativity). Land of Talk stick with you even after the show ends—or they (temporarily) retreat into the distance. They are a rare and special band that hold space for musical prowess and visceral emotionality within the same song.
The show on the 14th highlighted Life After Youth, with six of the eleven songs on the setlist coming from the band’s newest release. The mood for the night generally hovered around the mid-tempo range, with things slipping down into slow jam (or perhaps slow sway) territory for “Inner Lover.” As the first single shared with the public in advance of the new album’s release, the “Inner Lover“ signaled a change in direction (in some senses) for Land of Talk since their previous album from 2010, Cloak and Cipher. For the first ten seconds of the song, a beautiful and throbbing synth loop lays out the sonic backbone of the song before being joined by drums and a second layer of bass. Veering away from Land of Talk’s tendency to instrumentally center the guitar(s) in each song, the ebbing and flowing synth clears out room for Powell’s vocals to enter at the 0:24 mark (of the recorded version) and burrow into the crevices carved out by the pulsating synth bass effects. On stage at Bowery Ballroom, this allows Powell to stand and sing for large swarths of the song, a rarity during the previous Land of Talk sets that I’ve stood through. In between jolts of creating extra effects with her renowned upper fret guitar playing, Powell stands with a hand on the microphone, singing with her eyes closed, gently rocking her body in tandem with the all the bass. This is Powell at her most subdued but also her most vulnerable and powerful, a potentiality that media outlets such as Pitchfork seemed to miss by describing the latest LP as “muted.” Seven years later, both Powell and those of us who have been along for the ride since at least Cloak and Cipher are seven years older—and seven years more wounded, tired, and, at times, hesitant and even skeptical. Although I heard early versions of some of these songs at Land of Talk’s shows in NYC in May 2016, the combination of the new release and my looming 30th birthday amplifies the feelings that they activate in me.
The powerfulness of “Inner Lover”—and of many a song by Land of Talk—rests in how the band create an atmosphere with a song, leaving space for interpretation through Powell’s (intentionally?) vague lyrics. Singing more for how her words fit with the instruments, Powell seems to write lyrics for how they will sound. The beauty of such lyric-writing is that it also leaves room for tension. In the chorus of “Inner Lover,” Powell sings, “You light it slowly/ Your light is lonely.” Who is this “you” in the song? Is it Powell/the narrator singing to herself? Powell/the narrator addressing someone who has gotten through to her? The end of the song brings no resolution, as Powell declares, “Feeling here is free” at its close. In the audience as this song is being performed, I am feeling the here with her—and feeling present with myself. During the six years that the band were on hiatus, I was (mostly) single and learning how to light up the fires of self love for myself after depending on a romantic relationship for three years. Hearing this song live for the first time viscerally tapped into all those memories of loneliness of my mid- and late 20s—and the overarching loneliness of childhood and my teenage years that hangs over those more recent recollections. But then, as happens in almost all Land of Talk songs, the hopefulness of Powell’s vocals cut through the remnants of past hurts and disappointments. I think of my present, of how right when I was nearing acceptance that I just might be single for the indefinite future, I met someone amazing, a you with whom to share care and support—and who I thought of in that moment.
Bringing many good feelings from developments in various areas of my life to Bowery Ballroom that night, I stood at the Land of Talk show the happiest I have been in a very long time. Near the end of the set, I was overjoyed when the band played my other favorite song from the new album, “Spiritual Intimidation,” which I heard for the first time at their show at Baby’s All Right one year previously. Although it’s another synth-y one, Powell’s guitar is a sonic fixture in the song in a way it is not in “Inner Lover.” Before the song’s chorus, Powell sings, “How you gonna live if you can’t love?” As a band for lovers, this has, in many ways, always been the question for Land of Talk. Built around the friendship of Powell and drummer Wheaton (back with the band since 2016), the band’s shows have, even when different drummers were cycling through, felt like an invitation to join the celebration. In between songs, audience members vocally express their glee at the band’s return. With the exception of some borderline patronizing and misogynistic offers by male audience members to help Powell tune her guitar, these are expressions of unyielding devotion. “Welcome back!” I yell midway through the set, hoping to help shut down some of the more gawking comments towards Powell. But the comment is just as much for myself—and is meant as an expression of how much of a void existed in my music listening life in Land of Talk’s absence. Seeing Lizzie for the first time in years before the show in Brooklyn last May, I got to tell her that I was finally in grad school, doing what I love. One year later, I got to see/hear her do what she loves yet again, in the company of a crowd that had her overcome with emotion by the encore of “It’s Okay.” With the wisdom of being older and of knowing how rare it is to feel so moved by something or someone, I was crying in the end, too.