Skullcrusher – ‘Quiet The Room’ review: a storytelling masterclass

Trading her rootsy folk beginnings for a more widescreen approach, Helen Ballentine casts an entrancing spell on her exploratory debut album

The autonomy afforded by home – its safety, warmth and familiarity – is likely to be less valued when there is no option but to stay there for a long period of time. It’s a predicament that Skullcrusher, born Helen Ballentine, tussled with towards the latter end of the pandemic-induced lockdown; while stuck in quarantine in her LA apartment, she began to reflect on her upbringing in Mount Vernon, a quiet town situated 200 miles north of New York City.

As she thought about her rocky early life – primarily, her parents’ protracted divorce – Ballentine began to process her emotions by writing about each of the moments when things fell apart. The resulting collection makes up Ballentine’s candid and multi-dimensional debut album, ‘Quiet The Room’: a record that establishes Ballentine as a clear-eyed truth-teller, with poignant songs that move relentlessly as she revisits cobwebbed childhood nightmares and the dark shadow of familial trauma. Opener ‘They Quiet The Room’ begins to conjure up these hazy, yet painful memories: the layering of Ballentine’s nimble, Joni Mitchell-like vocal creates a restless choir, as she glimpses at a previous relationship breakdown.

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The subject matter on ‘Quiet The Room’ might continue to transport us to Ballentine’s past, but sonically, she moves us forward into a new chapter in her musicality. In a bid to encompass the physical shifts of her journey, the record is framed in much more widescreen sounds than Ballentine’s previous two releases, her eponymous debut EP and its five-track follow-up, ‘Storm In Summer’. As she dials up her indie-folk sound to a greater intensity – the tumbling momentum of ‘It’s Like A Secret’ makes for one of her most strident tracks to date – Ballentine’s search for optimism becomes reflective of a butterfly trapped under glass, gasping to be set free out into the world once again.

A flurry of violins engulfs ‘Pass Through Me’, while the slyly psychedelic ‘Whatever Fits Together’ binds a fingerpicked riff with gentle electronic elements. “Slipped away like a sweaty hand,” she sings of leaving home at 18 on the latter. “Went along with whatever / Thought I knew what I wanted.” The lyrics are spare yet searing; for Ballentine, the track is both a personal catharsis and something seen distantly.

Even when Ballentine continues to dig into the places of despondency that marked her childhood, it’s comforting to know she’s not making her journey alone. Her partner, producer and multi-instrumentalist Noah Weinman, plays the banjo and offers hushed backing vocals on a number of tracks, including ‘Whistle Of The Dead’, which features a home recording of Ballentine playing piano as a toddler.

‘Quiet The Room’ carves itself out as an autobiographical return to some of Ballentine’s darkest days, though she purposefully never allows herself to get caught in cycles of sorrow and regret. Instead, through acknowledging the courage it takes to simply let go of the past, Ballentine gives her listeners permission to shake loose any emotional baggage and dive headfirst into the clean, revitalising waters of the future.

Details

skullcrusher quiet the room

  • Release date: October 14
  • Record label: Secretly Canadian

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