Written by: Alex Green
Sandy Bell’s When I Leave Ohio summons a haunting vision of Emily Dickinson behind the wheel of a dusty 1978 Maverick playing Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter and preparing to get the hell out of town.
Bell’s album is all about running away, but not because she’s being chased—she’s running away because the tedium of the quotidian world in which she lives is no way to live at all. And as we all know, tedium is a slow killer that takes years to blow your head off and Bell’s observations of daily life suggest she’s not up for it. She refuses to let herself get frozen in the kind of bleak Hopperian landscape where people zombie their way from gas stations to cafés to theaters never even looking at each other.
It’s hard to live somewhere when you don’t want to live there and it’s even harder to maintain an equipoise that’s not only manageable but also won’t drive you insane. Bell’s departure has less to do with any last chance power drive or rocketshipping dramatically down the freeway with the city burning behind her. It’s a quiet exodus that’s the equivalent of a small shrug, a changing of the mind, a boat slipping away down the river from one darkness into another.
And that darkness is the thing that Bell is reckoning with on When I Leave Ohio. Anyone can leave—that’s the easy part—but if you think of Benjamin and Elaine sitting in the back of the bus soaked in sweat and triumph, you’re forgetting the way that very same sweat and triumph did a pre-credit dissolve and turned into something resembling terror. Bell chases that terror and it chases her right back and the result is one of the darkest, most moving song cycles this critic has heard since Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
The titular opener is a jaw-dropping procedural (“Drive into the parking lot/Put on your blue eye shadow”) about preparing to leave. The speaker pulls into work, lights a series of cigarettes and punches the clock one last time. The pause between her boss telling her she’s needed at Register Four and the stultifying fury that request surely must incite is one of the most wrenching and anxious .029865 seconds you’ll ever hear. It’s the sound of a kind of comporting of the psyche and what’s left of the soul— how Bell managed to record the tension of that instant is utterly thrilling.
And it only gets better from there.
“I Quit” is an impossibly gutting number whose subject prepares to attend a party that “celebrates the end of everything.” It’s also about the aching glare of a light bulb and the coldness of the world. “I Can Still Feel Your Power” is a ghostly battle-march that’s part funeral procession and part nod to the everlasting effect people have in our lives long after they’re gone.
Later, the hypnotic “Autopsy” is a harrowing spiritual post-mortem and the album closing “Wake Me” is a rousing aural manual of what to leave behind in order to move forward.
When I Leave Ohio is beautiful, resonant work that’s stark and painful, oddly comforting and deeply, deeply sad. Sandy Bell’s songs have such poetic precision and crushing emotional exactitude, her work is nothing short of staggering.