Land of Talk’s Liz Powell imbues Performances with honesty and vulnerability that strips away any self-imposed constraints or outside influences.
I’m not prone to nostalgia or spending significant time thinking about and listening to music from my adolescent years. It’s mostly music from the here and now for me, but late last month, the podcast Bandsplain took me right back to the old house where I was sixteen, clumsy, and shy, immersing me in a past I’ve been unable—and unwilling—to revisit for decades now.
It’s probably no coincidence that my willingness to examine my relationship with my past self coincides with some serious work I’ve been engaging in with my therapist. Less expected is how Liz Powell’s latest Land of Talk album, Performances, has pushed me even further into reflective processes. It’s enough to make me feel ganged up on (as if someone were grabbing my head and forcing me to look back while holding my eyelids open) if I didn’t feel as if I’m beginning to heal through the process.
“I needed to make a love letter to my teenage self,” Powell says of the understated piano-based album that’s a response to expectations and pressure they felt about what Land of Talk represents as a band and how it is supposed to sound. Basing artistic choices on intuition, feeling, and their own emotional reaction to their art, Powell imbues Performances with honesty and vulnerability that strips away any self-imposed constraints or outside influences. The result is a moving and personal record that presents itself for what it is: “The album title is very literal,” they say. “I’m performing what’s in my brain, but I’m tired of performing femininity for the music industry, femininity in my life, respectability, and vulnerability. I’m trying to grow out of these and break out of these roles in my life.”
Lead single “Your Beautiful Self” upends presumptions right off the top with a low, almost growling Powell working their voice up their registers as the song progresses on buoyant piano lines. One can’t help but palpably feel their sense of liberation as they sing, “Take a deep breath / Let it out / Let the love in,” in the chorus. Allowing themselves permission to explore what a Land of Talk song can sound like, Powell builds much of Performances upon spare piano melodies and uses their signature guitar playing as colour and texture rather than foundation. Hearing the Rhodes swell at the start of “Sitcom” takes me back to a time when that distinctive sound was ubiquitous on the radio, and taking a break from all your worries meant 30 minutes in front of a TV screen waiting for the happy ending you knew was coming at the end of the episode. Life is more like those “To Be Continued” cliffhanger episodes, though, the ones that meant a resolution would take a while yet to arrive. Powell’s songs exist on that cliff, offering room for change, evolution, and even uncertainty.
A sprinkling of instrumental interludes and the subtly haunting single “Pwintiques” work to suggest musical avenues not further explored or itches yet to be completely scratched. But the biggest takeaway from Performances is the emotional permission Powell gives themself to embrace their formative experiences in a way that doesn’t require justification or explanation. There’s a sense in our culture that we need to constantly be improving and refining who we are and presenting our “best selves” in order to justify our place and status in the world. That’s bullshit. It’s performative at best and disingenuous at worst. The only one that’s getting hurt is us, our past, present, and future selves, by our fear of the judgment and persecution that may come for what brings us joy. Powell and Land of Talk owe no one an explanation for the musical ideas they choose to explore or abandon. Performances makes that abundantly clear.