Imagine having Letitia VanSant’s depth of empathy. Feeling as much as she does, and as hard as she does, must hurt: Most of us care only as far as our Twitter feed takes us, but here’s VanSant on her sophomore album, Circadian, talking about such subjects as depression, climate change, gun violence, the stranglehold that corporations have on American politics, and—trigger warning—her own sexual assault.
The last of these motifs comprises the body of her opening salvo, “You Can’t Put My Fire Out,” both a hell of a way to start the record off and to reclaim her sense of self following her experience with the unthinkable. But thinking of Circadian only in terms of VanSant’s personal suffering: She has a mighty heart, and she follows it along countless other cathartic pursuits, sometimes even focusing on several at once. On the record’s closing song, “Rising Tide,” she takes a defiant parting shot at the parties responsible for turning the Earth into a slowly-withering hell for the rest of us to endure. “They can pour all this money down the hole in your side / But all the money on Wall Street these tears can’t dry,” she declares, quite possibly through gritted teeth. “They’ve got plans for our pockets, cigarettes for our lungs / Poison for our babies and bullets for our guns.”
As pissed-off political songcraft goes, “Rising Tide” is bright, sunny, verging on chipper until the gravity of VanSant’s lyrics sink in. There’s a percussion-forward marching band cadence to the style, as if she intends on compelling her listeners to stand up, go outside and form a protest parade with like-minded neighbors: It’s a classic call to action as well as a demand for social justice, told with measured anger rather than scorching fury. But there’s also peace to VanSant’s vibe.
Describing her work as music to meditate to would shortchange her skills as a musician and a storyteller—Circadian is too good an album to be kept caged up in a yoga studio—but there’s a contemplative quality to her style of Americana. “Spilt Milk,” an act of confession sung over punctuating snare drums, soars over the dark acknowledgment of her guilt; “The Hustle” pays an upbeat and cheery tribute to fellow musicians trying and failing to make it in a terraformed industry landscape; “Most of Out Dreams Don’t Come True” encourages listeners to make peace with loss by being frank and open about miscarriage. Even at her most impassioned, VanSant sings to soothe spirits.
This remains true on Circadian’s first two songs, “You Can’t Put My Fire Out” and “Tin Man.” On the former track, VanSant reclaims a piece of her selfhood from the creep who violated her; on the latter, she opens her heart and soul to a man incapable of opening his own. Whoever VanSant’s tin man is, he’s probably just like someone you know and who you would never in a million years qualify as toxic.
“Everybody says that you’re just the strong and silent type,” VanSant reflects on the second verse. “No one seems to understand that your pain becomes mine.” But VanSant, just by composing “Tin Man” to begin with, advocates for greater understanding. Her emotional plea to her nameless fella breaks down, with breathtaking efficacy, the hereditary macho brutality responsible for breeding emotionally unavailable men. It’s not so much a poison as it is a disease.
Given the song’s proximity to “You Can’t Put My Fire Out,” connecting the subtextual dots is easy: Hypermasculinity is inflicted upon others in the form of sexual violence. This may oversimplify Circadian’s message, and perhaps isn’t what VanSant intends at all, but the bleed over of her emboldened lyricism on “You Can’t Put My Fire Out” into the gentleness of “Tin Man” feels purposeful, and frankly supplies the rest of the album with its abidingly compassionate framework. “I taste your words inside my mouth / Like broken glass I spit them out,” she proclaims on the former. “I’m the one who’s speaking now / You can’t put my fire out.” If anyone has the tools necessary for rejecting and deconstructing violent forms of manhood, it’s VanSant, and if any album released so far this year puts those tools to use, it’s Circadian.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
Revisit Letitia VanSant’s 2018 Paste sesion: