XO Skeleton cross-examines our relationship with death and how that association affects how we engage with others.
Not to get overly diagnostic over an album title, but I’ve been doing an awful lot of thinking about what the title of La Force’s XO Skeleton signifies. In biology, an exoskeleton is the hard, bony outer surface of some invertebrate animals, a protective layer that also gives this organism its structure and form. My elementary schooling taught me that humans, like all mammals, don’t have an exoskeleton. My education from the school of life suggests otherwise. Though never physically hard or bony, many people have an emotionally impenetrable outer layer that limits their exposure to love and loss and numbs them from reality.
With XO Skeleton, La Force’s Ariel Engle cross-examines our relationship with death and how that association affects how we engage with others. Is death a start, an end, or merely a bridge to something else? How does our inner world and dialogue with our soul influence the way our physical body moves through and makes contact with others in the world around us? Sure, it is heady and esoteric thinking, but La Force’s potent and mystical music effortlessly gets to the essence of these questions. Songs are built on musical structure and melody as much as they are on the instinct of physical movement and function. The album’s first single and opening track, “condition of us,” pulses and undulates. It is a dance with one’s own breath, capturing the moments when someone leaves us out of breath, or short of it.
Rising and falling on a supple rhythm and unadorned arrangement, it’s not surprising to learn that “condition of us” is the product of pandemic songwriting. Even those with the most fortified emotional exoskeletons felt the crushing weight of our powerlessness against the cycle of life and nature in those early, isolated days. Engle leaned heavily into our destiny, “to be born, to live and to die,” with the hauntingly beautiful “october.” She says the song is “about the voices we internalize” at the onset of autumn, “when we settle into darkness…a time when we turn inward into our clothing and protective shells.”
As impressive as the way Engle intellectualizes the themes of XO Skeleton is how its music animates and articulates our human-to-human connections. The title track starts with a pedestrian re-telling of a telephone interaction with an insurance broker that ripples on a funky beat that electrifies the body just as La Force lights up the mind. It is extraordinary how single notes can connate heartbreak (multiple times in the bridge of “empty sympathy”) or the way that a measure encapsulates the complete timeline of a relationship (on “zipolite” and “how do you love a man”).
Ending where we started, with an examination of titles, Engle underscores how a series of singular moments coalesce into the narrative arch of one’s life by stylizing song titles in lowercase and the album name as uppercase. It’s a small detail, but one that subconsciously casts XO Skeleton in the canon of music that exists both above and below its surface. It is a radiant example of what is possible when we let our barriers down and a reminder of why it’s crucial to protect and hold precious who and what we are at our core.