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Oyster by Heather Nova | Album Review

Heather Nova’s debut album is a mystical folk/alt rock dream.

The late 80s/early 90s began a rise in a variety of fantastic folk and singer/songwriter voices in the realms of popular music (i.e. Tracy Chapman, Ani Difranco, Suzanne Vega, and The Indigo Girls).

With this rising tide, making music that stands out can put you ahead of the pack. Enter Bermudian singer/songwriter Heather Nova. Oyster blends a breezier alternative rock sound with the acoustic warmth of folk music. Add in a soaring vocal range that would make Sarah McLachlan jealous, and you have the recipe for a maritime beacon of an album.

We open up the album on one of the most alt radio-ready tracks, “Walk This World.” The electric guitar follows a descending progression in the verses that reminds me of some trip-hop projects at the time (for example: “7 Seconds” by Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry).

A tonal theme of minor to major goes through many of these songs. Heather brightens up in the song’s chorus. There’s a tension of hoping that the person we’re singing to will acknowledge our longing for them and give us a new point of view on the world, “With the light in our eyes it’s hard to see / I’m not touched but I’m aching to be / I want you to come, I want you to come.”

I love how the percussion and background strings bring to mind the drama of crashing waves or ocean waves on a rocky coastline.

Heal” is much more relaxed. Heather’s acoustic guitar moves cyclically between three dramatic notes. This pattern is akin to the lapping of waves against your feet. The cool gray tone matches the forlorn mood.

We ache to heal the wounds in our relationship, “Dig me out, can’t leave this love for dead/ Hand to mouth we’re picking up the thread/ I’ve got you belly-deep in me.”

The bridge rushes in with a surge of electric guitars as to show the rising catalyst to remedy this hurt. If you enjoy the more acoustic sounds of Suzanne Vega’s work, I think you’ll find this to be right up your alley.

Island” opens with Heather’s siren-like voice breaking the calm. The song is a mix of folk and alternative sounds. Nova’s words paint an abusive relationship which she so desperately wants to escape from, “And I don’t know why I can’t tell my sister/ He spat in my face again, and I don’t want to die here.

Heather mourns the many facets of her that this man will never get to see. Through this treatment, she feels frozen and unable to move or speak. His abusive turns are highlighted in the line, “He fucks with the beauty/ A kiss, a kick, a kiss, a kick, a kiss kiss kick.” This culminates in her wish for a far-off place to bury all aspects of this man from her life and start anew, “I need an island, somewhere to sink a stone/ I need an island, somewhere to bury you/ Somewhere to go.”

One of the more ambient tracks on the album is “Throwing Fire at the Sun.” This thumping beat swirls into a gentle growl of electric guitars. Nova appears to mourn the loss of a familial relationship (something noted in the final line, “Blood is a river, ties you to me”). She refers to laying down her weapons, “I put my hands up/ Lay my weapons down/ I know that I was stupid/ I was wrong,” a point that appears to have either aimed to hurt her in the long run, and ultimately eroded the relationship they had.

“Maybe an Angel” is another understandable choice for a single. It, too, has a more alt-radio-friendly sound. Again, it’s a wash of creamy electric guitars and lush vocals. Heather is enraptured by her love for this man whose tragic side threatens to end their love or him.

“Sugar” provides an interesting tense mellow atmosphere that slowly unravels as the song progresses. I love the addition of the slide guitar. I get vibes of Mazzy Star from its steely cool demeanor. “Sugar” comes off as a pejorative here.

All this perfect behavior she’s trying to put on for her boyfriend’s family barely covers the emotional gash she’s trying to hide, “And your father’s little pancakes/ So round and perfect/ And me sitting up too straight/ Laughing in wrong places/ Kissing you/ Kissing up/ Kissing too soon.” It all unravels once the notion of pregnancy comes up in the 3rd verse.

One of the most folk-pop forward songs on Oyster is“Truth and Bones.” Piggybacking off the last song, instead of hiding her internal feelings, she wants to be transparent with her partner. There’s still an air of caution behind this need, “My mouth is full of secrets I’m too afraid to tell./ My body’s full of longing for you to know me well./ I move through the day in the rhythms that I’ve known/ I’ve got this crazy dream of stripping down to thruth and bone.

The song is much more in line with the gentle folk style that Sarah Mclachlan had taken on Solace with a little pop flare. “Blue Black” has some of the most driving tempos on the entire album. The driving drums propel you forward like running through the woods. The song has an early Cranberries feeling with its eruptive sound. This is one of the darkest songs on the album. It’s hard to tell whether the story she sings about refers to sexual abuse of her by a family member or ex-lover. The lines, “And was it familiar when you touched my sister/ God, I don’t think there’s a word for that,” blur the lines for me over the focus of this pain that the song points towards.

Nova stands strong to show that she may have once been broken, but is now stronger than before. Heather wants this man to know he may have stolen her virginity, but he never had her heart, “I gave it away, whore for a day/ It’s so ugly, I’m still breathing/ But you never got my virgin heart/ It stayed locked up, it’s still beating.”

“Walking Higher” is a touching ode to a friend’s passing. Nova’s clean plucking style adds richness to the hovering synth organ humming in the background. Heather speaks about how her friend’s spirit will always remain with her.

I find a lot of beauty in the notion that a dear friend’s spirit visits to give strength and closeness in moments of loneliness, “And could I be walking higher/ Could I be right beside her?” She feels this person through her music and the world around her. Although she will mourn from time to time, she takes solace in keeping their memory alive inside her.

We continue with an eruptive folk/alternative sound on “Light Years.” This descending melody in verse adds a passionate yearning to Heather’s words. She isn’t asking for marriage, “No paper, no ring/ In the trees where frogs sing/ I brought lillies for you/ Think of all the things were gonna do,” all she wants is a partner to stay with her under the same pretenses of forever.

“Verona” looks back at a romanticized relationship that Nova had conjured up. Heather takes a much more alt-rock sound with moody electric guitars and hypnotizing backing vocals. This tragic sort of love seems to have completely entangled her emotional and sexual feeling, “It gets inside you like the sun/ It makes you wet just like the rain/ Makes you sound so sentimental/ Oh its a lovely kind of pain.” The call back to Verona relates to this idealistic Romeo and Juliet kind of love, which she would address more directly by the song's end.

The album ends with the soft wash of “Doubled Up.” It’s probably the dreamiest song on the album. The creamy electric guitars, strings, and slide guitar give a shoegaze-like/alternative sound similar to Mazzy Star.

Heather sings about the euphoric feelings surrounding this relationship she is in. This overwhelming wash of infatuation has her at a complete loss for words, “Feels good it feels like poetry/ Don’t ask me to explain it just/ Feels good, like poetry/ I’m doubled up again.”

Unlike the rush of various folk acts that seemed to have erupted in the early 90s, Nova stands out on Oyster. Her combination of alternative rock alongside the folk stylings of her music makes for a dreamy and wistful journey from start to finish.

She would depart into the realms of pop music for her follow-up album Siren. Like Lisa Loeb, Heather’s sonic approach makes for a more timeless sound. While some of the production has aged a little sonically, and a few songs may have similar flavors, I think Nova does well to provide enough variety to keep the album fresh.

My favorites:

  • Walk This World
  • Heal
  • Island
  • Sugar
  • Blue Black
  • Walking Higher

My overall rating: 7.5 out of 10.



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