Although Common Holly’s sophomore album, When I say to you Black Lightning, is engaging from its very opening notes, its thesis statement doesn’t arrive until four songs in: “I think we’ve been measured out for pain since birth,” Brigitte Naggar sings on the woodwind-flanked folk rumination “Measured.” The album, a thrilling experiment in shattering the boundaries between folk, rock and occasionally punk, examines the human capacity to receive, cope with and deliver trauma. A huge leap from Naggar’s 2017 debut, Playing House, Black Lightning is rife with minimally detailed yet fully rendered character sketches, and Naggar’s deftness at seamlessly weaving dissonant guitar lines into her riveting stories elevates her music well above much of the crowded folk-adjacent field.
The first Black Lightning character we meet is someone who relocated to Canada after a lifetime of misery in New York. “I’m sorry New York broke you,” Naggar sings on “Central Booking,” a track among the album’s most traditional verse-chorus-verse folk offerings despite its eerie, fingerpicked progression. “It cracked your stamina / I think perhaps it woke you / But now you’re lost in Canada,” she continues, allowing the listener to imagine why and how this person relocated. In just these few lines, Naggar leaves her subject’s journey open to interpretation while lamenting their suffering. It’s a picture as moving as it is vague.
Black Lightning is full of lyrical passages that likewise paint thorough pictures in remarkably few words. On the softly hair-raising “Uuu,” Naggar uses a common fire metaphor to highlight a uniquely disquieting antagonist who enjoys spreading emotional damage into the world: “Trying to silence the ones that contradict you / Build your fire and watch everyone burn / Is that gonna make you feel better?” The song’s slinky guitars and pitter-pattering drums pair Naggar’s brief but vivid caricature with equally disorienting music, a trick she achieves just as well on “Joshua Snakes.” Its opening line alone is unforgettable: “You’re like a hot supervillain at the top of your game.” In just 11 words, Naggar offers a complete picture of someone whose attractiveness doesn’t disguise their awful demeanor so much as it makes the pill of their evil ways easier to overlook, a person whom most listeners have encountered somewhere in the world. As the track’s foreboding, sprightly tension explodes into overdriven guitar slides and unsettling woodwinds, Naggar ensures that this antagonist’s terrible nature lingers long after the song’s end.
Sometimes, Naggar doesn’t even have to create characters to strike with full force. On the especially unorthodox album highlight “It’s Not Real,” she endlessly repeats the phrase, “If I forget it, it’s not real,” over a sinister, undistorted series of guitar arpeggios. The music is as haunting as the fact that, although neither the song’s narrator nor their anguish is defined, their pain still slithers out of the refrain like snakes from an unseemly bush. Similarly, on “You Dance,” Naggar’s only lyrics are “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t panic” and “Don’t freak out,” all delivered over a nervous shuffle that bursts into a Veckatimest-esque carousel of uneasy guitar and vocal harmonies. The lyrics define the experience of anxiety, yet they leave enough gaps open for listeners to fill with their own traumas.
On Black Lightning’s final track, “Crazy OK,” Naggar packages everything that makes the album special into one furious fireball. It’s built on scarcely more than one line—“Don’t leave me / I’m crazy, okay”—that gives full life to the song’s narrator and the relationship they’re addressing. Barren acoustic strums and arpeggios introduce the album closer, which eventually explodes into a distorted power chord blast that would make Jeff Mangum proud. The song is as lyrically simple, melodically straightforward and unshakably disconcerting as Black Lightning’s numerous other highlights; it simultaneously does the absolute most and so shockingly little. If even the people Naggar dreams up are this precisely measured out for pain, one thing is as clear as her characters are: When Naggar embraces fiction, she embraces reality.