In the years since their third album Deep in the Iris, the output from Montreal trio Braids (namely, Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts & Taylor Smith) has been sporadic – they’ve released a double-sided single and an EP since 2015 – but they have certainly been busy. Behind the scenes, the band wrote an impressive 40 songs before taking the 9 that would eventually become their new record into the studio. Working with Chris Walla (who’s produced records for the likes of Tegan & Sara, Lo Moon and Foxing, and co-produced here) helped them to break new sonic ground, though Shadow Offering remains as dramatic and intense as their best work – and in some cases, even more so.
Immediately apparent on opener ‘Here 4 U’ is that Standell-Preston sounds particularly invigorated, her voice occupying as much space as the instruments around her. Many of the album’s songs address feelings of alienation and failure to communicate, often in a romantic context, but she leaves herself open to everything, her ethos expressed on the opener’s bittersweet chorus: “I’m here for you, even if you don’t want me to be / I’m here for you, even if I had to leave.” That sort of openness does have its drawbacks, however; she checks herself on the album’s next track (and lead single) – over electronic flourishes and one of the album’s strongest melodies, she recounts an ill-fated fling with a 22-year-old ‘Young Buck’ that’s memorably described as ‘a glaring example of what I am drawn towards and should strongly move away from’.
Similarly, on ‘Upheaval II’, she berates herself thus: “I spend all my time chasing after guys that don’t love me / I spend all my time chasing after dreams that don’t suit me.” That lyrical candour is backed up by the band as a whole learning to open up a little more, a more forceful current running through the record that is relentless even when the music is at its most restrained. They create beauty from a bare-bones piano motif on ‘Eclipse (Ashley)’ (written in the highly unusual time signature of 13/8), while ‘Just Let Me’ tugs at the heartstrings with its all-conquering desire to be heard amid the fallout of a failing relationship. “Where did our love go? It was here yesterday,” Standell-Preston sings as the music swells around her, hinting at an explosion before everything suddenly falls away and she’s left to plead, “Just let me get through to you.”
Underscored by deeply-felt emotion from start to finish, the album’s depth of feeling memorably boils over into ‘Snow Angel’, its 9-minute centrepiece and the record’s sensational peak. Standell-Preston examines her place in the world, her passive complicity in injustice and her white privilege in a searing mission statement that seems almost too personal when taken on its own, but in album context it fits perfectly, gradually opening up as the song progresses, shifting into a spoken-word screed halfway through, a dazzling change of pace that speaks to the anxieties that come with living in a world that often seems unbearably hectic, but also serves as ‘a reminder that life is beautiful still, amongst all the madness, the chaos’. Shifting into a piano-driven coda, it fades into the ether having made a profound impact.
Given that it puts a heavy lyrical focus on her perspective, it’s fitting that the album should end on a song titled ‘Note to Self’, as Standell-Preston wrestles with the feeling of being worn out by herself (“I tire of me sometimes, just like I tire of you”) while remembering to take solace in simple pleasures (“Walking down the street, I felt such joy in being alive”). It’s an optimistic resolution to a record that’s by turns fearful, empowered and self-lacerating. That examination never turns to hatred; that fear, never to despair. For all their questioning, Braids sound more like themselves than ever before, that dramatic streak remaining intact as their songs are driven by a new sense of clarity and purpose on Shadow Offering, their most powerful – and possibly best – album yet.