“We don’t care to be understood, to understand is to lie.” – Implied Violence mission statement
The only real constants to avant-pop act Parenthetical Girls were front man Zac Pennington’s melodramatic, ever-reaching vocals and taboo lyrical fixations. Throughout Parenthical Girls’ career, the band shifted line-ups and aesthetics, utilizing ornate instrumentation at first, then wielding increasingly more electronic elements and anthemic melodies before their indefinite hiatus after 2013’s Privilege collection. But Pennington’s personal style and vocal theatrics remained the defining trait of the band, a beautiful oddity that always seemed wonderfully out of place, simultaneously archaic and futurist.
In between the start of the Privilege EPs and their final collection, Pennington collaborated with modern theatre ensemble Implied Violence for an opera titled The Dorothy K, conceived by Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell and composed and arranged by Brian Lawlor with the Western European Symphony Orchestra. There had always been an operatic bent to Pennington’s approach in Parenthetical Girls, but Always & Only the Lonely, Lawlor’s recent release of the recordings from the project, showcases an unrestrained Pennington, his theatricality and poetic eye given room to stretch and reach. Though it’s unmistakably the work of an immensely talented, globe spanning ensemble, it’s also unmistakably Zac Pennington, with all his quirks and obsessions and trills, not so much existing in the shadow of Parenthetical Girls but sharing and elongating that project’s dark spaces.
Of particular obsession for Pennington, as always, are the betrayals of the body, whether that’s in a lusty sense– as with “Plague of Marcus” and its sneering remark about “Sweet sister Scotland/She’s on her knees more often/Than on her feet“– or a more physically painful sense, with motifs of disease, physical flaws and flagellation. Pennington’s lyrical obsession with suffering in all its forms is perhaps what made Implied Violence consider Pennington a potential collaborator, since, as Jen Graves wrote in a piece for The Stranger, Implied Violence’s costumes are “designed to induce heightened states in the performers: exhaustion brought on by extreme conditions (performing outdoors in a cold shallow pool in the rain for five hours[…]) is coupled with practices including repetitive dances based on the Shaker religious tradition, costumes so tight they’re like mummification, archery, ethering, and leeching.”
Pennington may not be quite as physical in his suffering for his art as Implied Violence is but one must remember Pennington is an artist who once decided to have himself buried alive in order to confront his claustrophobia as well as his anxiety about leaving Seattle for Portland and then turned it into a performance piece and essay. Always & Only the Lonely’s title track explores Pennington’s romanticisation of permanent slumbers, albeit via sleepwalking instead of burial. Over the album’s jauntiest and most fleet footed musical performance, Pennington sings of sleepwalking and being “Swept off our feet/Free from disease,” urging others not to wake a slumering lover for fear that to do so would be catastrophe. Where others might fear comas and their near death state, Pennington glamorizes them as the ultimate in peace and tranquility, a medical Sleeping Beauty story; no wonder the promise and gift in “A Promise & A Gift” both seem to be death.
This also connects to Pennington’s other lyrical fixation, temptation, specifically of a taboo sort. Pennington has always been one of the great lyrical explorers of perversion and hypocrisy, particularly as it relates to the outwardly pious, but Always & Only the Lonely is perhaps his most ambitious work on this front, weaving together the morbidity of the Old Testament and its abundant plagues and mayhem with the New Testament’s obsession with purity and cleanliness and how that manifests itself in organized religion.
After the swelling of some ominous strings and horns, “The Wolves Who Hide Among the Trees” shrinks to give room for Pennington to set the scene. “Iris in/We pan upon the origins/Of sin,” he recites, in a baroque twist on screenplay jargon, going on to describe “the folds of skin she kept me in” and the narrator’s youth, fragile enough to be “still stifled by the sight of my own blood.” When the music builds again, Pennington’s voice soars, singing “Neither cross nor crown/Could touch us now,” a phrase that initially seems uplifting until you think of the more unsettling, we-suck-young-blood elements of the verses, punctuated as they are by horror movie baritone stabs. The implication is that authority seeks to feed on and corrupt youth and religion, though it masquerades as safe haven, is frequently one of the greatest indulgers of that. That lands with even greater impact thanks to the scene set by “The Plagues of Marcus,” which rattles off apocalyptic threats from some immortal, Old Testament being.
The closing of Always & the Lonely, “The World Turns to Ash in His Mouth,” revisits that plague narrative and brings together the symbolism Pennington has used throughout the work by remembering “The plague came disguised/All in white/Inside all of you,” commentary on both the peace of death and the destruction religion and its finery can bring. The music behind this is beautiful and sublime until it isn’t, the abrupt shift from dreamy to melancholic expanding on the anxiety already present in Pennington’s delivery, imbuing the song with immense tension. Though the twin “The World Turns to Ash in His Mouth” movements are the most dissimilar to the music of Parenthetical Girls, the song’s structure and themes are peak Pennington, an ultimate expression of his artistic obsessions and a wondrous showcase for what this assemblage of equally bold collaborators is capable of.
Typically collaborations of this nature are risky maneuvers, too frequently featuring outsized egos clashing more than fusing. So it’s remarkable that with The Dorothy K and Always & the Lonely, Zac Pennington, Brian Lawlor and Implied Violence managed to fuse together their aesthetics so seamlessly without diminishing their individual traits and talents. The end result is a work that is ambitious and intimate, transfixing even without its visual accompaniment, enviable in its discipline and capacity to wield suffering as a beautiful necessity.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover