Bellows Embrace the Sullen Side of Pop Music with “Fist & Palm”
Pop music is often seen as something shallow and brainless; a genre of music in which the artists could be replaced by machines and we would be none the wiser. While it may be easier to make a case for that idea than against it, every once in awhile there’s an artist that completely revitalizes the genre for me. Brooklyn’s Epoch collective is home to a slew of incredibly thoughtful and talented musicians, and Bellows, the group fronted by Oliver Kalb has reinforced the one ultimate truth of the genre; the music is at its best when it’s both a reminder of and a distraction from the dissolution of relationships.
Their catalogue is interesting to experience as a whole. There’s a tremendous difference in sound between their debut album and this year’s incredible First & Palm that would probably be seen as jarring if not for Blue Breath. The string that connects the push-pins of their discography is Kalb’s morose vocals. Their delivery is never melodramatic; instead opting to communicate their emotion through what could easily be seen as a thinly veiled monotony. In the span of five years, Bellows has grown from the folky solo stylings of Oliver Kalb into the well-oiled machine (aka a band) that’s responsible for one the best pop records of the year.
The delicate guitar work on Daylight has been swapped for the hypnotic swells of synth on Fist & Palm. This change was most prominent with the release of the album’s lead single, “Orange Juice.” Musically, the song is fairly bare bones. A simple beat that becomes ingrained in your head from the moment you hear it and some incredibly smooth synth work will make you want to move, but the lyrics touch on the album’s subject matter without much subtlety; “Something cruel, I kept inside my pocket / I always end up sounding like a fool / End up running through a mess of bad behaviors / I’m lashing out whenever I’m with you.”
Kalb’s songwriting is incredible because everything they say feels genuine. You can tell that they’ve worked on what they’re trying to say and how they want to say it. For instance, “Bummer Swells” starts with such a simple lyric, but there’s something about it that has made it the most poignant line of the record. Kalb softly sings “Can you remember me strong like I pretend to be?” and you can feel the wound this lyric was expelled from being torn open whenever you hear it.
In interviews, Kalb has said that Fist & Palm is an album about the dissolving of a friendship; an aspect of human relations that they feel isn’t touched on enough in modern pop music. It’s a cyclic album, thanks to what they’ve deemed an anti-narrative, as it starts and ends at the same point in time. You’ll notice things begin to unravel towards the end of the album; there’s a notable shift in mood once you’ve reached “Bully” that begs a simple question: is the back half of the album meant to be seen as the other party’s perspective, or, is it so chaotic and morose because we’re seeing the events that made up the first half of the album play out in reverse?
It could also be a realization; the first half of the album being the admittance of the events of the dissolved friendship with the back half being the side in which this turmoil is finally being processed. That would make “Bully” the perfect place to start. The metaphor of a drunken sparrow gives way to the following passage: “Though you couldn’t be my friend all last year / I couldn’t be there for you either / You had to black out on some liquor / To not confront the basic idea: We feel the same thing just as awful / We feel the same pain just as awful / And as convinced I was you hurt me / That I was nothing more than a bully.” While these lyrics may not be a direct reference, you can’t help but hark back to “Orange Juice” in which Kalb recalled “Something cruel / that I kept inside my pocket.”
In any case, Kalb & co. were able to do something that I don’t think many others would be able to pull off. Fist & Palm is truly an album that begins and ends in the same place, in the same moment, but from different perspectives. You could feel the realization of a friendship terminated begin to sink in; the chaos and fear surrounding the idea of being alone are so clearly demonstrated. “From the Palms” has a moment that sees the song transform into a funeral march of sorts. A tribute song to friendships lost. It’s certainly a dark way for the album to end and a departure from even the start of this body of work. Fist & Palm may be the third album in Bellows’ discography, but it’s the first that sees the band as something they were clearly always meant to be; a powerhouse of pop with a knack for creating the most stark and beautiful storytelling.
Fist & Palm is out on September 30th via DBL DBL WHAMMY. Pre-order your copy here.