Poetically translated to “golden joinery”, Kintsugi is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. The result is a second life, of beautiful seams of gold that seem to take what was broken and elevate it to something even greater than what it was before. Braids’ fourth record, ‘Shadow Offerings’, calls precisely that to mind. Three years in the making, it demanded time and space to pick up the fragments left from a group shattered from bitter departures and a turbulent dynamic, to reach the point of hard-won renewal. It took careful self-reflection; and with self-reflection comes discomfort, but Braids didn’t avert their gaze from the mirror, and instead stared straight at it.
“There’s more hopefulness in this record than anything else I’ve written,” says frontwoman, Raphaelle Standell-Preston, about ‘Shadow Offerings’. “I think the songs are more human, more tangible, more honest.” The glacial beauty of her voice and confessional lyrics have, in the past, been the dominant force of Braids’ sound – often to the neglect of all else. But producer, Chris Walla, of Death Cab for Cutie, who the Montreal-based trio met after wandering into his studio in the old warehouse they shared to record, has revolutionised not only their music, but their practise. Usually, Braids are protective of opening themselves up, but for Walla, they would surrender.
Walla’s fingerprints are all over this record. They have absorbed newfound influences and picked up their guitars once more, bringing both organic and electronic elements together. No two songs strike the same chord. Many tracks on ‘Shadow Offerings’ are deeply nostalgic, steeped in the shoegaze and grunge of decades past. ‘Just Let Me’ calls to mind the ethereality of Mazzy Star, with the smouldering tones of 90s ballads. Unspooling halfway like a lost train of thought, ‘Upheaval ii’ sees the usually immaculate sheen of Braids welcome a sound rougher around the edges. They don’t play the songs so much as they inhabit them. Every member, this time, has had the opportunity to become an integral part of this tapestry.
It has to be said, though, that Standell-Preston is at her best on ‘Shadow Offerings’. Her honesty has always been her most arresting quality – but here, there is a sense of self-confrontation, taking ownership of the not-so-pretty parts of herself and her place in the world around her. In that way, ‘Shadow Offerings’ is Braids’ bravest album to date.
At the heart of ‘Shadow Offerings’ is ‘Snow Angel’. Far more than a track, it’s theatre. Throughout its sweeping nine minutes, it’s both fluid and ever-changing as Standell-Preston doesn’t so much sing, but spill. After the interval, she takes on the stomach-churning task of coming to terms with her insignificance in world far greater than she is. She screams into her pillow, reaching punk-like mania: “There’s a feeling where I wonder if everything is going to be okay / And when I say ‘everything’ I’m not talking about my little everything, my little life / I mean the planet, I mean the ocean / I mean people fighting for their right to a safe life.”
She thrashes with questions of motherhood (“I wanna be a mother / But I shouldn’t bring in another”) – it sounds, disturbingly, like the darkest corners of our mind; the kind of things we think in our most quiet moments, like a fever she’s trying desperately to sweat out. ‘Fear of Men’ is Standell-Preston coming to terms with the lingering scars of her sexual abuse. It’s deceptively chirpy, and yet, the monsters that hide under her bed are the men she trusts: “The fear of men / Don’t wanna fear them”.
She also contends with her acknowledged “performative allyship”, which former band member – and the only person of colour in Braids – Katie Lee opened up about as a factor which influenced her departure in 2013. While, as friends, the band have since reconciled through mediation and anti-oppression workshops, Standell-Preston’s vocal on ‘Snow Angel’ is about her white privilege: “Am I only just now realising the injustice that exists / Cloaked in white privilege since the day I was born?”, she demands of herself. She wrestles with her demons in one gasp – it’s dizzying.
‘Shadow Offerings’ has proven to be a startling record, for Braids. It shows enormous progression and a degree of self-awareness that reminds you of the turbulence of modern life – a ride you can’t stop. But it also shows beauty, not in romantic love, but love in a far more pure, uncomplicated sense: that of friendship. The words Raphaelle Standell-Preston leaves us with are the tools we can use to get through the sun and the shadows: “One foot in front of the other / And the other / That’s all.”