The Woman on the Beach: The Practice of Joy
“Are guitars masculine?” asks Brooklyn-based musician and performance artist Holly Overton on her first solo release The Woman on the Beach. And though the instrument does show up here and there across the album’s twelve tracks, it’s been tossed into the backseat to make way for the less easily gendered sound of the piano. If twenty-first century ears have wearied somewhat of the downward thrum of the too male guitar, they should be relieved to hear the articulated sound of Overton’s keyboard. It’s not playing chords, so much as melodies and arpeggios, dancing around and complementing her subtle yet energetic lead vocals.
In “Desire, Denial,” a song set at the witching hour when a bar is shutting down and patrons size each other up for a possible continuation of the evening (remember that?), Overton borrows one of the best moves in the songwriting playbook: singing in both high and low registers, she creates a virtual male/female dialogue in the absence of another singer. Something about Overton’s ability to occupy either role — those of a self-pitying man and of a hesitating woman — enables the song to transcend the everyday drama it depicts. Instead of being about leaving a bar with someone, or only about that, it seems equally to be about empathy and imagination, about the ability to see the world from multiple points of view, to grasp more than one gender imaginatively.
The Woman on the Beach is a song cycle which, alongside of gender, also explores creativity itself (in particular, musical creation) as a possible antidote to the alienation of modern life. Overton grew up on the Outer Banks, and while memories of the ocean are clearly important to her both sonically and lyrically, the “beach” in question is as much New York City as it is North Carolina. The narrative arc of the album passes through a series of moods which concern the determination to make art in the face of various losses, whether bandmates, lovers, or home.
For Overton, the impulse to create seems to be in a complex relationship to desire which, the Lacanians tell us, is rarely, if ever, a simple desire for something but more often the desire to desire. In other words, rather than confirming our prior wishes, desire usually teaches us that we don’t quite know what we want. To desire is to want to want. And one wonders how this relationship to desire, particularly sexual desire, is gendered. Within the matrix of heterosexuality, do men, bombarded with images of women, have a somewhat more “stable” relationship to what they supposedly want, if only by virtue of the history of imagery — photography, film, painting, etc.? How are women supposed to negotiate that spectacular history? Is their sexuality primarily about making an accommodation to the male fantasy encoded in the history of the spectacle?
If I ask these fairly well-known questions in a naïve way, it’s not to say that I have any novel answers to them, only that I think they are raised by certain lines from The Woman on the Beach, such as these from “Transient Love”:
I wanted to want your life
I wanted to be who you wanted me to be
You wanted me to want what you wanted
I wanted to want what you wanted me to want
There’s something unsettling about the asymmetry here. A woman sings about wanting to want what a man wants. Where is her desire independent of what this fictional other (seemingly male, given the song’s reference to maternity) is supposed to want? And the last line is key, for within the four walls of those four “wants” resides the notion that the singer wanted to want something but came up short. Her wanting wanted, or perhaps just waned over time. And that, of course, is the adventure of any and every desire, that it is not enough to want something once, we must continue to affirm it, to want what we want, again and again, in order for wanting to have any reality or consistency.
“Everything profound loves a mask,” writes Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil. And the continuation of that aphorism is as bewildering as anything the philosopher ever wrote — a comment on how it most likely does not matter whether or not one disguises one’s true identity for one is bound to be misunderstood anyway. One of the consistent pleasures of The Woman on the Beach is the sense I get while listening to it — and seeing her live show which features costumes, sets, and artworks designed by Overton — that she wears the mask of someone who would prefer not to have to wear a mask — a reluctant pretender. On the album’s effervescent closer “The Grand Finale” — a sprawling song which at times reminds me of Ann Magnuson’s mercurial storytelling in Bongwater — the singer strikes a different pose, adopts a new vocal style every few bars — alternately serious and playful — pleading, yawning, laughing. When Overton sings: “I love this band, I love this band, I love this band,” it’s hard not to hear the enthusiasm of a teenager discovering a new group, but the refrain also sounds like the grateful lines of a musician happy to be backed up by her talented friends. The two masks overlap and complement one another, leaving the listener wanting even more personae to emerge, again and again.
The Woman on the Beach is available as a digital download at
Holly Overton is a painter and musician living in Brooklyn.
David Copenhafer is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn.