“Gonna walk until the anger’s gone,” Leigh Marble intones as the first line of Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows, a phrase that evolves into an all-out mantra. This axiom serves as a harbinger of the harrowing trek that lies ahead. Over the record’s 10 cuts, the listener is led through a winding path through Marble’s psyche, a trail bordered by existential dread.
That said, this isn’t another one of those all too common and redundant records of a songwriter espousing gloom for gloom’s sake. The Portland, Ore.-songsmith wrote and recorded the album as his now-wife, then-girlfriend was in the midst of a battle with breast cancer, and therefore, Where the Knives Meet… stands as a sincere document of the range of emotions Marble went through in that unenviable situation.
The album reveals its core like an onion having its layers peeled back, the songs serving as chapters chronicling the stages of Marble’s turmoil. A marked progression is observable throughout, with Marble personifying various roles to convey his shifting turmoil. He is the drunken, suicidal poet of “Inebriate Waltz”, the swaggering accuser of “Jackrabbbit”, scared child of “Evil” and resigned fatalist of “Nail”. What helps sell his distinct personas is the sonic palette backing him, the instrumentation as diverse as his guises. The standard guitar-bass-drum ensemble is joined with flourishes of classical piano and a heap of junkyard instruments, among them accordion, Mellotron, pump organ and glockenspiel. That the production sounds intimate, as though it were recorded in a dimly lit bedroom, further sells the authenticity. What results is a series of tunes evoking imagery, setting and mood, occupied by the gore of slaughtered pigs and gnashing gators, pathos and menace.
Opener “Walk” rises slowly with a drum pattern as foreboding as a moonless night. The bass rumbles beneath like fissures about to fracture the firmament as minor and sparse piano notes and a droning organ fill in the gaps. The track builds in intensity, Marble’s voice growing from meek to defiant as he states his declarations one after the other: “Gonna walk into the setting sun / Gonna walk until my legs stop feeling”. It is the narrator’s intent to transcend identity, to dissolve or distil his sense of self, the music replicating a sensation akin to that of a shaky hand balling into a fist, then relaxing to a steady open palm. Near the end, the rhythm of dragging shackles is introduced, linking the song to the tradition of slaves’ work songs and indicating the protagonist is breaking from the imprisonment of his body. Listen to it too closely and you’re likely to feel your own breath and heart rate accelerate.
“Jackrabbit” follows with a decidedly more up-tempo and blues-rock vibe. “Who’s bought up shares of your loyalty? / Let’s follow the dollar and see”, Marble sings in the chorus of the song so vitriolic it could be a Bob Dylan finger-pointer. The dour lullaby “Goodnight” sees Marble merge a bit of Neil Young at his most pensive with Leonard Cohen, the harmony vocals and brushed percussion lending it a smoky feel. The self-deprecation of “I know you wanna leave me / Well, I wanna leave me, too” is a line that would feel at home on any early Cohen record. By the next cut, “Evil”, Marble is reduced to a little boy hiding under his bed, hoping the monsters don’t find him while an upright bass growls like a crocodile. A frenetic breakdown allows for a magnificent moment in which the harmonics between electric and acoustic guitars merge indistinguishably.
The album’s centerpiece is the 7:28-long sprawl of “Nail”, featuring near-minimalist verses countered by effervescent refrains. The tune sways with Marble’s ambivalence, sounding alternately like a man ready to cash in and one determined to keep on fighting. If there’s a couplet defining the record, it would be one that appears in the chorus here: “And there at the end of your rope / You’ll test of the aerodynamics of hope”. It’s no coincidence this segment is among the only lyrics contained in the liner notes.
After three somber pieces in a row, the second half of the record opens with the petulant, jaunty rocker “Holden”, in which Marble derides the “fucking fakers” and “horrid haters” he’d like to see twisted into pretzels. It’s a pissy song, childishly rambunctious and filled with the abstract disdain of an adolescent’s fantasy, but that’s the point. (No lie — on my first listen to this song, without knowing the title, I thought “Man, these lyrics could be coming from the mouth of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.) The song does end on an extended outro featuring a more tempered melody building towards a crescendo, suggesting that one can only rage for so long before caving in or moving on. “Pony” then arrives as a pure Paul Westerberg send-up, cocky and rollicking, the tune galloping like the equine of its namesake.
Wrapping Where the Knives Meet… is a trilogy of more downbeat, but still engaging, ditties. The boozy “Inebriate Waltz” is aptly named, led by an accordion as the narrator vents his frustration over the success of poets he feels are inferior to him before accidentally(?) drowning himself in a river. You get the image of the protagonist as a drunken troubadour swaying on a Parisian street corner as he recites his rant to passerbys. “Green Pastures” might be the most disturbing song here, jazzy keyboard and crunchy guitar amplifying the slow burn of a jilted lover whose umbrage is manifesting into a desire for violent revenge. “Where the teeth meet between the lips / I will bite until your flesh pulls back”, Marble sings, seemingly overcome with cannibalistic lust. Finally, there is the closer “Cars”, which might not be as dour as one may initially think. Scratchy, HAM radio tuning and the breezy melody lend it a feeling of a new day dawning, even in the lyrics give the impression that it’s a late-afternoon funeral procession the singer is observing. “The end isn’t coming”, Marble sings, “It’s already here”. On the surface, it’s one helluva dark sentiment. But, on the other hand, it also signals that things can’t get worse. In that sense, the song serves a perfect closer, as it encapsulates the dichotomy of the album as a whole — seeing the light through the darkness and bringing something beautiful out of the grim.