Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
While La Luz frontwoman Shana Cleveland has pursued solo ventures outside her surf rock band in the past—instead largely focusing on folk with bands like Shana Cleveland & The Sandcastles and The Curious Mystery—her latest effort, and first entirely under her own name, proves her most hypnotizing to date. It’s a welcome shift in sound considering the twisted, strange reality we occupy these days: In 2019, fact and fiction are one and the same to our president and the immediacy of environmental danger has yet to compel world leaders. We need surreal music to guide us through the equally bizarre times we find ourselves in.
Shana Cleveland’s new album Night of the Worm Moon (whose name is a tribute to experimental musician Sun Ra’s The Night of the Purple Moon) was partly inspired by the Seattle artist’s move to Southern California—a surreal home, in her mind—as well as the Afrofuturist movement. You can hear those influences clearly in each song, which sound like they take place in some alien desert landscape under a laser dome sky. It’s Ameriana through the looking glass, warped by pedal steel guitar and filled with a sense of foreboding under Cleveland’s crystal-clear vocals.
“I’ve always been here / Stuck inside the wall / I watch you breathe / You never noticed me at all,” she intones on the title track, bringing to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman convinced there is a lady trapped in the bowels of her house. But despite the definite science-fiction inspiration present throughout the album, Night of the Worm Moon also has a gothic quality. If author Shirley Jackson—known for her unsettling tale “The Lottery” (which you probably read in high school) and The Haunting of Hill House (which you probably saw butchered by Netflix)—made music, it may have sounded a little something like this.
Evocative imagery enhances the texture of Cleveland’s already richly melodic songs. Over buzzing guitar, she describes in “The Fireball” how “Into the pepper tree / A bluebird disappears / In little leaves, the branches twisting in midair.” On the opener “Don’t Let Me Sleep,” she conjures up images of an inescapable nightmare, silkily singing of “Trying to get out / But I can’t find the way / I’ve made a mistake / Don’t let me sleep too late.” The lyrics are delicate and well-chosen, always weaving some sort of mysterious story that we don’t quite understand yet want to hear more of.
Even when words drift away on the purely instrumental tracks “Castle Milk” and “Solar Creep,” Cleveland still seems to be telling you secrets through the mesmerizing arrangements. With nimble guitar over muffled ride cymbal, “Castle Milk” is stirring, while “Solar Creep” is both enchanting and languorous, like the aural version of sleepwalking. The songs are cinematic in quality, telling tales wordlessly.
One major characteristic of the album is just how similar all of the songs sound—pared-back acoustics, sweeping pedal steel guitar and haunting vocal accompaniments—though that’s not necessarily a detraction. While sameness is often seen as the equivalent of dullness, Cleveland defies that notion for the most part. It may be difficult to pick out one track from another at times on Night of the Worm Moon, but they all sound fantastical, like a lullaby dropped from a passing U.F.O. More than anything, the consistent lull of the songs means the LP should be experienced as a whole (possibly while on hallucinogens).
Cleveland doubles down on what makes her such an engaging performer on her latest album: namely her spellbinding voice and off-kilter creative vision. It may not be the most bombastic record of 2019, but Night of the Worm Moon shines nonetheless.