The entire job of an artist is to try and be as vulnerable and naked as you can be
Anguish of mental health is like setting a snow globe on fire. The glass doesn’t break, but you sure can feel the flames licking at every part of you. That’s what it’s also like diving headfirst into The Yawpers’ fourth studio set, Human Question, a combustible 10-track expedition that not only twists the bones but makes you question the very nature of your reality.
Frontman Nate Cook bends and stretches his vocal cords in unlikely places, from the groove-basted “Dancing on My Knees” to the snaky slither of “Reason to Believe” to the tongue-whipped “Forgiveness Through Pain,” an especially acrobatic exercise that pushed Cook to his brink and beyond.
Then, when he’s exhausted himself with volatile anger-thrashing, he takes a step back to breathe. “Man as Ghost” is primed for introspective confrontation, seeing Cook peel back the layers and really access the damage and his own faults in the matter. And then “Carry Me” lumbers along in an icy manner, a tender meditation that unwittingly became a healing agent in his life. In between each smoking pillar, he pulls the rip chord to talk about what is really troubling him far below the surface, and with the winds of change blowing in today’s culture, he’s far less afraid to be this brutally honest. Reliable Recordings’ Alex Hall (Cactus Blossoms) is the guiding light, simply giving the band more license to scream out their feelings — when necessary.
“It’s an odd time. There are a lot of things going on. I think some people may be a little too entitled and think they deserve too much. By the same token, there’s a lot more people talking about what’s going wrong,” says Cook. “There’s more dialogue around mental health, and I think that’s for the best. Back in the day, joking about suicide was a big taboo, and now it’s everywhere. It makes it easier to be an artist. There are things I feel safer saying nowadays.”
As is often his approach, before putting pen to paper, Cook just knew Human Question would provoke questions to himself as much as the listener. “I always try to set certain goals for myself as a writer before I really start writing lyrics. It was before I had even started writing words that I had that idea. It’s a loose framework. Some of the record doesn’t fall under that category, but it was definitely something I wanted to do, and it was intentional from the onset.”
Cook spoke to The Globe about the album’s backbone, looking inward, finding a way out of pain and letting it all go.
With “Human Question,” you almost seem to propose the listener to look inward as they’re listening to this album.
Sometimes, it’s easier to have a narrative about yourself. Because I’m walking myself through a process of self-reflection, it maybe translates to what I’m doing to the listener. Usually, when I’m writing music, I’m usually only concerned with myself, and how the audience reacts is tangential. But because I’m trying to make myself react a certain way, it would have that effect on them, too.
“What is the human question?”
It’s largely rhetorical as a question. It’s more of a call to meditation than trying to actually figure anything out.
On the song “Dancing on My Knees,” you sing: “You said there’s growth in agony / And we finally agree.” Is that true?
The world is such a tragic place, and life is so burdensome a lot of the time that the only way to maintain any sense of hope is to look at the agony as part of the beauty or at least hope it’ll get better. Whether or not it’s actually a lie… [laughs] It’s the only way to keep yourself above ground, at least it is for me. I’ve toyed with the images of masochism and pain as therapeutic a lot, but with this one, I wanted to be as direct as possible. Life is so fucking hard, you know, and it’s really hard to keep a gun out of your mouth. Sometimes, the only perspective you can really maintain that’ll do it is just convincing yourself that the pain is on the way to happiness or relife or redemption.
You’ve previously stated how you’d written about pain before but never a way out. Is there a way out on this album?
No. [laughs] I think there’s always virtue in trying. As I get older, I find wallowing in sadness and making the whole of your identity and not taking responsibility for the fact you’re in charge of your own disposition has appealed to me less. So, I’m trying to grow as a person and take responsibility for my own well being and happiness and in how I treat people. In the past, at least musically, it was not one of my primary concerns. I definitely have not fixed myself as a human being, and I’ve definitely not ripped myself out of agony. I’m trying to take the steps.
You seem to confront that with “Man as Ghost.”
Yeah, this is a tough one. There are parts of the song where I’m trying to work through everything, and then, it’s really easy to make yourself the bad guy so that nobody else can do it for you. Sometimes, I fall into that trap. “Man as a Ghost” was me trying to understand my shortcomings and how flippant I can be with people, particularly in relationships I’ve had. Through sheer lack of attention, there’s a tacit cruelty to me, and the more I self-reflected about it, the more helpless and hopeless I felt. Specifically, with the line “I have no more violence to give,” I’m just so exhausted that I can’t even be bad anymore or I can’t be enraged. It’s almost like a resignation to it. That can also be a trap to fall into. I tried to balance it on this one.
You play with the duality of dark and light quite often on this album. Another potent lyric is: “How I look in darkness is what makes me quiet in the light.”
It’s a common theme for me. The darkness is a stand-in for self-reflection — like how I look when no one is watching and how I see myself mutes my ability to be available. I’m so self-conscious about who I am and what I am that when people do see me, I wind up hiding that person.
“Carry Me” feels like another moment of confrontation with yourself. You sing, “It’s true / I’m in so much pain.”
This song is very much an exercise in being as plaintive and straightforward as I possibly could. There are a couple of metaphors in it, but I really didn’t want to hide behind tricky wordplay or anything like that. It was a very direct plea to my then-estranged wife. I knew who I was writing it about and who I was writing it for. And I wanted to be as open as I could. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, it did its job, because I sent it to my wife, and we got back together. [laughs] Musically, we were drawing from a couple things, like “Walk on the Wild Side” [Lou Reed], and there’s some Tom Waits elements to it on the bridge. We had a friend of our drummer come in and go apeshit. We cherry picked from that and cobbled this sax solo.
“Forgiveness Through Pain” is a musical standout on the record, particularly the cadence of your vocal line mimicking the rhythm.
This one was actually pretty difficult. When we went into the studio to record the album, I hadn’t finished the lyrics yet. To get the lyrics to fit was incredibly difficult. It is so strong, musically, and playing it live is so much fun. But I really had to step up my game to get this one to work, vocally. [laughs] It took a long time, and I was very, very frustrated. I think it came together. Trying to fit a pseudo-narrative song over that tempo with that much requirements from the cadence was hard.
“Where the Winters End” is very much the emotional send-off, as if you’re letting everything go finally.
Yeah, maybe that’s a better way to put it. I think it’s recognition that things get better and things get worse. We’re all getting older. Ultimately, you just have to find peace in whatever you have. Obviously, I can write about that all day and not live it, and I certainly don’t. But it’s something I’m trying.
It also reads as if you’re a messenger imparting upon the listen of the journey ahead.
I hope it doesn’t come across as too pedantic. I definitely don’t want to sound like I have any answers whatsoever, because I am for the most part a pretty miserable sack of shit. [laughs] I don’t want people to follow my playbook too hard. A lot of that is more advice to myself, I guess, and giving myself mantras I could internalize and maybe find some solace form.