Kath Bloom: “Thin Thin Line”
There’s such a thing as being so simple as to be profound, but there’s also a thing called being profoundly simplistic. The difference is all the difference, and separating the two there’s just a thin, thin line. Kath Bloom walks it on her new recording, and she almost always stays on the right side of it; and even when she doesn’t, the listener can never say that she’s anything less than sure of herself and her songs.
Yeah, this is a folk album, in a way that not very many people make folk albums anymore– which is to say, it isn’t some sleepy little collection of quietly-strummed love songs made to be played in cafes. It’s earnest and sincere, yes, but also raggedly, nakedly emotional, bristling with tough truths and seemingly designed to be as prickly to the touch as it is soothing to the ear. It’s the kind of record that seems to have a tough skin but a soft heart: The emotions are candid, but they’re earned. There’s nothing sentimental about it, unless you consider wisdom gained from a life well-lived to be sentimental.
Thin Thin Line follows 2008’s Terror, which itself signalled the end of a hiatus from recording that had more or less lasted a couple of decades. Bloom is still very much an outsider, and this album, like all her albums, is released on a tiny indie imprint, but her profile over the last several years has grown significantly, thanks in no small part to an indie-friendly tribute album featuring the likes of Bill Callahan, Mark Kozelek, and the Dodos; Devandra Banhart, meanwhile, has been her most outspoken supporter, heralding Bloom as one of his favorite singers. But Thin Thin Line doesn’t feel like the singer is cashing on on an increased public awareness so much as she’s making up for lost time; the fourteen songs here are simple but spry, and generally very lively. Bloom plays guitar and recorder and is joined by her Love at Work band, which features drums and bass, different guitars and harmonica.
It all feels off-the-cuff and immediate, not unlike Bloom’s lyrics: She is a poet, to be sure, but also very much in the tradition of the confessional folksinger, and as such her lyrics don’t scan as terribly sophisticated or intricate so much as they’re upfront and intuitive. This is cowboy poetry, the songs sounding almost like they could be campfire songs: The rhymes are very basic, and the basic meaning of any one of these songs is fairly easy to deduce. Bloom isn’t interested in hiding behind complex metaphors or elaborate narratives. These are emotional truths told simply, but richly. Only on occasion do the songs feel like they could use a bit more polish, as on “Freddy,” a tune that seems to be built around the title character’s name being rhymed with “ready.”
This kind of songwriting suits Bloom just fine, because it doesn’t hold the listener at arm’s length, but welcomes the experience of listening with guard down, cynicism cast aside, if only for the CD’s 53-minute run time. Bloom sings in a voice that’s craggy and rough, sounding worn down not by cigarettes or booze but simply by living, which is sort of what the album is about: The Thin Thin Line in question is the fine division between hope and disaster, between love and something other. These are relationship songs that are on the fence, songs about love that can turn on a dime from ecstasy to devastation and back again, and about love that lingers just a bit too long.
The title cut elucidates the album’s themes and elevates it into something spiritual; Bloom isn’t just singing about a relationship, but also about resilience and strength, about the necessity of hope even in the face of uncertainty. “Heart So Sadly” ties things together even better; it’s a post-break-up song that stands between ecstasy and catharsis, fear and release. What makes these songs more than sadsack break-up tunes is Bloom’s belief that love, even when flawed or broken, is worth fighting for, and that without it we aren’t really living. “Like This” is a plea to a lover to leave desperation behind, and the companion pieces “Is This Called Living?” and “Let’s Get Living” sound like breaking points, moments of truth when the singer is forced to choose how she will live and love from this time forward.
All of the relationships written about here– perhaps all relationships period– have baggage with them, but Bloom is determined to leave it behind: Love may not exist apart from worry and doubt, but, at least on this album, it transcends it. My favorite song here is a gem called “Back There,” a sing-along of tremendous release, in which the singer vows to leave her baggage at the door, to proceed forth and embrace life with a hear that isn’t heavy, but open. The gift of Thin Thin Line is that it lets us see things that way, and not just briefly. It’s a challenge– as Over the Rhine sings– to love without fear. That’s a lofty ideal, but it sounds like Bloom arrived at it honestly. And on Thin Thin Line, she shows us how she got there.