Stephanie Catlett surprised listeners with her 2019 EP Meet Me in the Dream, and fans of her initial work will be delighted to know that her 2020 LP Caught Under Glass (available today, Dec. 11) holds intricate poetic depth and a melodic sensitivity that expand on her initial promise.
Although the album could rightfully be shelved in a genre somewhere between alt-country and ’90s indie pop, Catlett’s innovative musical decisions bring her work into a class of its own. The album does the difficult work of providing listeners with a coherent whole. It also capably avoids falling into the twin pitfalls of trying to spread a single, clever motif into an album’s worth of material and sacrificing a coherent artistic identity by trying to please every listener. Like every great musician, Catlett is wise enough to trust her own sensibilities: The result is a masterpiece.
Like her EP, Catlett’s album rewards repeated listens. The lyrics combine a clever cadence and catchy turns of phrase with a philosopher’s perspective of life and a poet’s penchant for metaphor. Each song stands alone, but together provide a portrait of a woman staring in a mirror at old betrayals that she no longer lies to protect. Her songs are both deep and light — the easy music belies the weight of her words.
Caught Under Glass invites listeners to share Catlett’s insightful take on the nature of life as she pauses at places where we’re prone to rush past. As a whole, the album provides an intimate depiction of existential mystery. Her willingness to engage with what she cannot understand shows how the truth of life arises from the very things we find difficult.
But this deeper level of engagement is largely masked by the beauty of the music and clever nature of the lyrics. The importance of the actual words she sings requires that most of the songs play at a relatively slow tempo, but the variation of the instruments guarantee something new catches the ears. Her ear for hooks rivals her appreciation for language. In addition to her melodies, the album is filled with little musical flourishes — grace notes on the piano, the sustaining warmth of Suzanne Wedeking’s violin — that allow listeners to become comfortable with listening to the album. Rather than overwhelming listeners with a barrage of tricks, Catlett allows her songs to feature a shifting array of instrumental gems. By giving listeners permission to really follow instrumental lines worth hearing, Catlett provides a direct experience of her overall project, which, like her lyrics, points listeners to engage slowly and deeply with the world’s beauty from a perspective of appreciation and without needing to ignore its tragedies.
Catlett’s true mastery as a songwriter appears when she tackles something that would seem ripped from the pages of convention. The somewhat straightforward waltz “Tracy Be Mine” could musically be the backing track for any number of country crooners. The basic foundation laid by Brian Cooper’s drumming and Dana Telsrow’s bass lets her incorporate one of Dan Padley’s excellent guitar solos, and draws attention to her lyrical talent for deep character analysis based on observations of everyday life that transforms a bit of vandalism into a meditation on life, love, and art: “Tracy Be Mine / scratched into the sidewalk / It ain’t much, it’s what he’s got …”
Her empathetic nature allows Catlett to create a sketch that winks at the joke of the statement’s slightness while also helping the listener feel into the universal truth that such moments point toward. As she proclaims in the overtly cheerful “Pool Rats of Park Road” with a nod to local Iowa City geography: “Ain’t it funny when you don’t love someone/ everything is a wonderful joke.” The layers of meaning in the words and perspectives that inform, already present in just the lines, are taken to an entirely different level when combined with the musical framework.
Throughout, the album’s tone shows how the current apocalyptic backdrop confronting us can be faced bravely with the same quality of cheer that everyday life always requires. At one level, she displays this in the more-than-timely “Choreography of an Exhale,” a beautiful, slow meditation on life during Covid that offers as a metaphor to comment on the masks that keep us from touching the reality of our lives even when the pandemic is not a concern. But the album carries far beyond our peculiar moment: She writes with a wryness that expresses a lovely alternative to blithe ignorance or angry cynicism. The whole of “Split-Level Ranch” appears in this guise, indicating a way out of the paralysis caused by the inadequacy of our dreams that many felt prior to the pandemic: “There are seven crows / in a murder of days / if life is a crooked game / he’ll play, anyway.”
Caught Under Glass is a remarkable debut album that shows Catlett is an artist with the musical and lyrical talent capable of carrying her insightful and important observations about the world. Her vision for the album, songwriting skills and musicianship raise the bar of the already high caliber of talent Iowa City’s musicians have shown this year.
Although it may be too late for this album to make many top 10 lists, especially given the wealth of local gems this year, it nonetheless is worthy of such accolades. Fortunately, it will be around to accompany us through 2021, helping us to explore the wiser, wryer ways of understanding the major catastrophes and tremendous joys that constitute our lives.