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Wednesday's 'Rat Saw God' is fearlessly, chaotically, grimly American

Wednesday's <em>Rat Saw God</em> is powered by singer Karly Hartzman's strikingly creepy — even grotesque — lyricism and the way the band builds a twangy, layered sound to support it.
Zachary Chick
/
Courtesy of the artist
Wednesday's Rat Saw God is powered by singer Karly Hartzman's strikingly creepy — even grotesque — lyricism and the way the band builds a twangy, layered sound to support it.

There was "a tear in every word," is how longtime producer Billy Sherrill once described Tammy Wynette's singing voice. It was the first lady of country music's signature: a trembling, anguished voice that seemed to hold a teardrop in each note. Wynette had the ability to sell songs like "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" or "I Don't Wanna Play House," '60s suburban melodramas as flat as paper dolls, with a devastation that rendered them into full-bodied human tragedies, her voice starting and halting like a broken train sputtering to its destination. It's on "Stand By Your Man," of course, where you can hear those tears gather into a full-on breakdown, that voice twisting into a wail with every high note. That singing was precisely why Wynette never wanted to release the song — begged Sherrill not to, actually. Wynette thought she sounded like a squealing pig.

When Wednesday's Karly Hartzman sings, I hear a tear in every word. She's got a yodeling, folksy, country music cry. She can do it sweet and straight, as she did on the underrated and uncharacteristically soft "How Can You Live If You Can't Love How Can You If You Do" from 2021's Twin Plagues, singing of feeling "jealous of the rooms whose floors can feel your weight upon them" over pristine steel guitar. Or she can summon the vibrating, heartbroken tones of the late outlaw king Gary Stewart on the band's cover of "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin Doubles)," as the band transforms the classic into something to mosh to, as I once witnessed live. In Wednesday's rattling, furious rock, better at home in DIY punk venues than any honky-tonk, she sometimes lets her voice spiral out, as she does on the eight-minute epic "Bull Believer," until there aren't any words to even hear tears in, because it's all just screaming.

"Country and punk music aren't too different," Wednesday guitarist MJ Lenderman recently told NME. "There's pain in both [forms of] music." It's at this border — of dramatic country sorrow and clever punk disaffection — where Wednesday's Rat Saw God exists. The Asheville, N.C., band's fifth album, out April 7, is a beautifully bleak record that spins up country, shoegaze, suburban nightmares and youthful debauchery into a thrilling work of distorted Americana. There's no pig's squeal in Hartzman's country warble, but listening to the music here you might feel the dread of waiting around to be slaughtered all the same.

Initially a Hartzman solo project, across three albums of original music and a covers collection Wednesday has steadily complicated its sound with each new release. But Rat Saw God feels like the clearest incarnation of the band's vision, which is to say it's the grungiest. Its strength exists in its strikingly creepy — even grotesque — lyricism and the ways in which she and her bandmates build their twangy, layered sound to support it, as Hartzman maps out a strip-mall ridden wasteland that feels pulled straight from the pages of Ghost World. Death, violence, drug abuse and one gnarly "never-ending nosebleed" blur together against the backdrop of nail salons, Panera Breads, Sunday schools, Dollywood, Dollar Trees and sex shops tucked off highways with biblical names. "Heard someone died in the Planet Fitness parking lot," Hartzman sings on "Bath County." "Fire trucks rolled in and people stood around."

And the songs go hard, harder than anything on the band's previous albums. At times listening I felt like I was receiving Hartzman, her voice buried under or fighting waves of reverb, through the other side of a dirty window, a sheen of grime to every story. While there are notes of abrasive shoegaze predecessors like Medicine or Swirlies, the band has a way of building that sound into shrill peaks of coordinated collision, driven by Lenderman, a rising solo star in his own right after releasing last year's Boat Songs, and Xandy Chelmis, who coaxes both strange slowcore and more traditional sounds from his lap steel. You can hear those peaks in the siren-like, almost horror movie score swell of "Bull Believer," electric guitar piercing like a stabbing knife. Or on "Got Shocked," when the band builds up tempo into a rollicking rhythm together like the crank of a wind-up toy, the simplicity of its beginnings building into scuzzier and scuzzier volumes.

But there are moments of light in Rat Saw God's darkness, Hartzman our fearless narrator as she bundles her personal stories and freaky lore together like a small-batch, hometown zine. "You amazing idiot," she sings at one point, in response to someone dropping a chainsaw after getting stung by a yellowjacket. Elsewhere, she pokes fun at a neighbor who claims "America's a spoiled child," but then "gives out full size candy bars on Halloween." "Chosen to Deserve" is the record's sweetest and most conventionally country song, a recounting of minor teenaged sins (skipping school to drink, getting too high on Benadryl) delivered to anyone chosen to be with Hartzman. "If you're lookin' for me," she sings, in a lyric of stunning dirtbag beauty: "I'm in the back of an SUV, doin' it in some cul-de-sac underneath a dogwood tree."

There's a speeding quality to Rat Saw God — not just in its backseat accountings of macabre roadside minutiae, but in its glorious blurring of hopelessness and whatever moments of levity manage to float their way to the surface of Wednesday's artful noise. In interviews Hartzman has said the songs were inspired by darker, restless moments of her youth, some in part due to the weight of financial insecurity that hit her family after her father lost his job during the Great Recession. "I was dealing with it by doing the most drugs, having the most unsafe sexual encounters, and experiencing the most trauma in my life," she told Pitchfork. Every drunken taste of freedom in these songs is really only that — a taste — before swerving back to a palpable sense of stasis or even doom and then boomeranging back, again and again, a spikey cycle of emotional highs and lows. The moment Hartzman's voice rises to break through the band's pandemonium, every instrument collides to silence her.

It's that claustrophobic inability to find real freedom and the ways in which Hartzman wrestles within it, recreated in the way the band builds heavy, jarring walls of sound that threaten to subsume her entirely, that make Rat Saw God's sound of survival feel distinctly, youthfully, chaotically American. Wednesday may be a North Carolina band, Hartzman writing about her hometown realities, but the depth of Rat Saw God's ache and the ambient, economic and social pressures that fuel its violence and numbness stretch far wider than one ZIP code. It feels pointed that many of the highways that line these songs are populated by the same corporate franchises that now infest every suburban town and city across America. Everything feels the same, itchy and hot and oppressive no matter how low you roll the windows down, because it is the same — or at least becoming it, so insidiously it might not be clear until your corpse materializes in the parking lot of your favorite fast casual chain.

So a younger Hartzman and the pals who populate Wednesday's music seek cheap freedom by putting their hands on the burners of their collective psyche: getting high, getting drunk, having sex in the wrong places. When cops raid a neighbor's mob-front house and pull guns from the walls, they don't blink. Hit someone with a dose of Narcan, don't blink. Country pain and punk pain are the same in many ways, to borrow Lenderman's phrasing, in that both are often born from the smack of reality that results in believing in systems — of faith, of capital, of domesticity — and feeling them fail you over and over. "Every daughter of God has a little bad luck, sometimes," Hartzman cries. I know Wynette and all the ghosts who populate the graveyard of Americana's past would agree.

But every once in a while there is a glimmer of pleasure — a silly inside joke, a little gossip, Nana crashing the carpool. "Suddenly it's a tragic story," Hartzman sings on the second to last track, spacing her words out with pauses that feel slightly too long for the song's storytelling. "But that's what's so funny." What is the joke here, exactly? Maybe claiming there is one is just enough to get through it all — and get through it all, she will.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.