Review: Johanna Heilman, When We Were Electric

Singer-songwriter reckons with the recovery of her body from cancer


"I need the sound," intones Johanna Heilman repeatedly on the seven-minute opening track to her debut solo album. "I'm a Stone" sets the eight-song cycle with an imperative urgency, slowly strummed out in an almost meditative shoegaze reverb as Heilman reckons with the revolt and recovery of her body from cancer. In fact, the entire album rings with a sense of otherworldly, out-of-body experience in the former Wildfires guitarist's echoing vocals, even as her lyrics hit devastatingly with evocative metaphors that arise from facing her diagnosis and treatment. Disease becomes numbness and ennui ("Anesthesia"), desperation and resignation ("Only Dead," "No Tomorrows"), frustration and determination ("Party Time Sexy Dance," "Kick and Cry") all ultimately hanging in search of a sound to cling to for meaning and the sheer expression of the unfathomable. When the closing "Finale" finally kicks in with a beautiful if ambiguous relief, it comes not as triumph but as metamorphosis and realization of mortality. Heilman's dark humor and sincere exploration of emotional waves both haunt and heal, the album an invitation to descend and ultimately rise in the embrace of letting go.


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Johanna Heilman, Johanna Heilman, Wildfires

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