Esmé Patterson doesn’t seem to have herself all figured out, but then again, who does? The singer-songwriter considers herself a purveyor of folk ‘n’ roll, but her sound also veers towards baroque pop and airy rock beats. Patterson started out with the Denver-based folk ensemble, Paper Bird, which she later left to pursue a solo career. Now residing in Portland, Oregon, she releases her new 12-track album, We Were Wild.
On the album cover, we see Esmé herself wearing a black leather collar with a dangling heart-shaped pendant that reads her name. There’s a chain attached to the choker, but we can’t see who’s towing the end of the line. Not to worry, none of this screams BDSM as Patterson looks out blankly, chin extended with her face as soft and placid as ever. This seems to be a stark departure from her last installment, Woman to Woman, which was all about running free and breaking those proverbial shackles. In the seven-track fan-fiction reverie, she assumes the voices of women whose names were immortalized in song; think Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, The Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby”, and Elvis Costello’s “Allison”. Patterson wanted to make heroines out of manic pixie dream girls, and the EP was both lauded for being conceptually brilliant and criticized for tinkering with the greats. Three years later, she produces an album that is all about her, and we have an inkling that this is Patterson’s belated liberation of her own soul, finally wilding out alongside those of music’s past.
It’s funny, because that interpretation becomes troubling when we consider the title of the album. Patterson knows that she was wild once, but what is she now? Her songs are all about those polarities, the contradictions that can hardly be pried apart with our fumbling fingers. “Without feeling wrong, how can we know what feels right?” she asks us on the title track, “Feel Right.” The feedback blares right away, and Patterson brings us onto her cognitive caravan, swerving in a way that feels so true to the motions of the human consciousness. After all, there’s so much back-and-forth in the way we think: Am I this or am I that? Should I do this or should I not? Through her lyrics, Patterson sends the synapses into turbulence—forking, converging, and seeping into the cyclical movements of her thoughts and memories. While this might be chaotic, it’s also disarmingly beautiful and gives her listeners motion sickness in the best way possible.
She does try to organize the refuse of these thoughts at times, and “No River” is probably her best attempt at that. Patterson sings, “I know that I’m alive today, but.” The fact that this line lingers on a dreaded, yet anticipated ‘but’ is unsettling, and she knows it. Her music is like the time-honored duck or rabbit optical illusion. We don’t know if we’re listening to something that is full of certainty or something completely misguided, but it doesn’t matter as long as we’re aware of the calculated effect.
We Were Wild hushes as it meanders along, finding its most instrumentally distilled moment in the acoustic number, “Find It”. The energetic basslines and Patterson’s hoots are temporarily dispelled, as she finds herself doused in the sheen of a love that she likens to a diamond. Patterson ends the EP with “Alone”, asking us if we’ve ever felt exquisitely at one. It’s an apt coda to such an internally probing album, but we don’t feel any less disoriented than we did when it started. Esmé Patterson’s newest installment might not be as clear-headed as the preceding one, but she lets us in on a deeply human concept. The most intrepid journey that we can take is into ourselves.