Words by Danielle Chelosky
Rather than positioning us to stand on the sidelines, Grace Session offers us a role in Rob Rich’s turmoil with love, addiction, friendships, and mental illness. Similarly to the band’s debut album Jacob’s Ladder, we are propelled into intense moments of reflection and insight with sonorous melodies and personal lyrics, and we have no choice but to be lured into the scheme of it all. Only this time, the storyline includes ironic elements we haven’t heard much of before, like vulnerability, optimism, and romance.
A “Grace Session,” to paraphrase Rich’s words, can be defined as a life protected by an inexplicable grace, as well as it is the odyssey of learning to accept the grace and thusly depart from isolation and self destruction through changes in perspective. This EP serves as a sort of turning point in said odyssey, which can be noticed through the immense contrast of the tone and the emotion with Jacob’s Ladder—the album like the dark younger brother who primarily sees himself as the embodiment of his mistakes. Grace Session is the older of the two siblings, wise and with a greater sense of direction, but still encountering deep-rooted problems on the way to a better state.
The EP greets us with an influx of muffled noises in “01 119” of voices and footsteps. About halfway in, the noise is drowned out by an enchanting hum that grows louder until the familiar ringing of “Fierce Grace” kicks in. This clash of background shuffles and an overpowering consistent serenity revisits shortly after in “Back Step”, through the seemingly paradoxical lyric “please don’t judge me for the noise / just remember the sound”. With the word “noise” accompanies an intrinsic insignificance—or, as Rich labels it, the “lowest common denominator output”—like the bland elevator music we strive to eventually tune out. Noise is the mixture of conversations at a cocktail party that attempt to block out the one sound we need to hear. Noise is the vapid nature of phrases mechanically stamped onto trite birthday cards that sit in CVS among a hundred equally pathetic others.
Sound, on the other hand, is our meaningful oasis. Sound is the carefully crafted moment of peace and harmony. Sound is the spark for a transcendence—physical, emotional, mental—that simply connects the dots. Yet, no matter how much more appealing one appears to be, both must coexist. Like pleasure and pain, the energies must partner, rather than compete, to form a balance. To succeed in his genuine endeavors, Rich seeks a safe in-between in which he can blend in with the noise and develop tolerance for it while also losing himself in the sound.
Instead of the expected invigorating instrumentals leading into dismal lyrics, “Common Sound (Not Strong)” surprises us with catchy, indulgent atmospherics. An overflowing culmination of liveliness ascends—we’re reminded of the beloved “Dream Envy”, which had stood out in the band’s prior album because of its similarly vivacious ambiance, only this intro exudes an even more lighthearted spirit. We are then faced with the hook of all hooks: “I can’t get away from the common sound / I’m never gonna get the cool kids to get down,” drawing us in with its quirky attitude. Despite all of this, the most crestfallen words are still tossed at us, because, well, it’s Rich People. If we pay close attention, we are met with the mirroring line “you made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe / I’m just sorry I had to leave,” contrasting the “I saw you laugh until you couldn’t breathe / lost my bike in a pile of leaves” quietly lulled at the muffled end of “Back Step”. This is no coincidence, nor is this simply Rich lazily reusing lines; we are forced to notice the unfortunate progression displayed through the downhearted change in words. Instead of reminiscing on charismatic memories, he apologizes for his departure. And suddenly reminiscing on memories isn’t as enjoyable as it once was. Still, we can’t help but succumb to the irresistible harmonies and belt along as we dance to it in our bedrooms, in our kitchens—wherever we listen. And although the doleful “I need to let you go” inflicts a potent pang of melancholy, we must accept the bittersweet nature of Rich’s goodbyes when he claims he is “trying to stay fine.”
An ambivalent motif of love pops up throughout the EP, often puzzling the listener… does he want love or not? This question is posed the most during “Safehull”, a mournful ballad wishing for the strength to engage in romance again. As Rich sings “love is cool / love is fine / love is wondering if I have the time,” he almost gives us the impression that he’s trying to formulate a pros and cons list to aid him in this decision. In that same song, we receive an explanation as to why there even is a decision to be made, through the line “I always wanted to feel love / and now it’s all that I’m scared of”. It’s a common theme in society—music, literature, movies—and suddenly, Rich, the recovering addict who sings about his internal battles over defeating his old detrimental habits and his trouble with identity, is introducing an entirely relatable issue. This time, his adversity is universally understood, and we can see the Rich People twist he puts on the typical topic. This inner conflict—to love or to remain afraid—is emphasized as we are given insight to his yearning for love being outweighed by the fear of it. With isolated vocals during the bridge portraying a vulnerability we’ve never quite been exposed to in Rich People’s music, we try to fathom the hurt and desperation that are conveyed ever so earnestly through Rich’s high pitched pleads. We don’t see this side of Rob Rich too often—amid the climax, we have adapted to his belting and/or his occasional yelling. In “Safehull”, however, we are permitted about thirty seconds to see right into his heart as he croons. Ultimately, we must accept that he himself is unsure of whether or not he is ready for love.
Along with the collision of Rich’s want and resentment of love, optimism and pessimism demonstrate a similar scenario of juxtaposition. Although Jacob’s Ladder, still the younger brother lost in unshakeable grief, saw no silver lining, Grace Session has its moments too, especially with the heartwrenching line in “Safehull” — “they say that I’ve come a long way / some days I find it hard to believe”. Both empathy and sympathy reach their pinnacle as we wish we could reassure Rich that he’s doing great, but we also know that we have our own days where we are overcome with a feeling of unwanted retrogression or stagnation.
However, despite Rich’s own self-doubt, the progression is evident; compared to “Handful”, a personal favorite of mine off of Jacob’s Ladder because of its literary rawness, “Safehull” symbolizes a step toward the personal growth Rich is ambitious to achieve. The idea of love is played with in both songs, only in the harsh “Handful” it is only referred to through criticisms—such as belittling love to a “sinking stone” to which Rich refuses to be tied. The entire perspective of love is minimized and dulled as he throws out almost nihilistic diction with words like “empty,” “bitter,” and “worn out,” intimating that love is not as glamorous as it looks, but rather, it is destined to either end abruptly or fade when the inevitable phenomena of monotony strikes. Not once does the word “love” come up, until “Safehull”, where Rich at last calls love what it is, by letting the word leave his mouth four times. From declaring himself “better off alone” in “Handful” to pining after intimacy once growing “tired of… crowds of three” in “Safehull”, Rich proves he has advanced in his escape from isolation, whether he recognizes it or not.
“Grey’s Ferry” momentarily assuages the dynamic aura with soft mumbles about moving feet and wanting to stay, we are given a breather to which we can appreciate simple rhythms and a minute of composure. Rich may have divulged to me that over the course of producing this EP, he listened to Coldplay and Drake religiously and wouldn’t be surprised if some pop elements sneaked their way into his music. I see it most in this brief amiable interlude.
But, lo and behold, before the EP comes to an end, the quintessential Rich People song commences with the guitar-heavy instrumental and belligerent drums. Striking us with a wistful dagger, “so let’s stick to the truth / it’s just me and you,” we are left to bleed out as we recall every intimate moment we’ve ever experienced. Ultimately, it’s a prominent theme in Rich People’s music—human closeness, and the warmth connected to social interactions. From the bittersweet recollections in “Common Sound” to the soft pleads in “Safehull”, Rich plants this idea throughout the EP of the vitality of the communication and companionship.
As Jacob’s Ladder was the product of an isolated state, Grace Session is the brilliant exhibition of the obstacles of breaking through the solitude and finding the strength in ourselves to love someone, whether it be platonically or romantically. And through the gloomy “I could try to suppress or control / but I just won’t let you go,” we see Rich’s weakness—an inability to separate himself from someone flawed with “expect[ing] too much,” which could partially account for his hesitancy with love.
Nonetheless, “White Mark” plays as the the triumphant anthem with the perfect grand finale. The very last minute of the EP is not merely the bow that ties the package up, but it is the box, the wrapping paper, the little tag with the “to” and “from” on it. The determined belting of “I wanna be all the way and unafraid to be” and the unrelenting clamor of the drums assures us that this is not over. This EP will not conclude with desperation and futility, it will close with motivation and anticipation for the future.
© February 17, 2018
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