Skullcrusher is not a ruthless metal ensemble, as one might guess from the name. However, what it actually is—the enchanting indie project of Helen Ballentine—is equally as thrilling. She doesn’t crush skulls, but she crushes our hearts.
Her self-titled debut EP arrived on Secretly Canadian last Friday. Within four songs that total around 11 minutes, Ballentine gives the world a piece of herself. The result is as gentle as it is raw, and as sweet as it is sad.
Ballentine grew up playing music but studied art in college, and she even held a full-time gallery job. She quit, but still—she has the perspective of a visual artist, and she can turn a physical or emotional sensation into sound, as well as small ideas into vivid pictures. On the sparkling “Trace” she sings, “You’re looking at me now but your gaze is hollowed out / You made plans to just skip town.” She’s observant and emotional, emphasizing small details. There’s a sense of emptiness taking up space throughout these tracks—emptiness inside herself, as well as within others. In some ways, it feels like this EP is her attempt to fill that gap.
Ballentine said of the second single upon its arrival: “I wrote ‘Day of Show’ on a hot day last summer in my roommate’s bedroom because mine didn’t have AC. I felt dazed and restless from sitting around in the heat all day.” The song itself has a humidity and exhaustion to it; her vocals are tired and almost exasperated, and the instruments are sluggish and swirling. It captures a sort of summertime doldrum, but a romantic aura surrounds the sadness.
She makes revelations, which probably emerged as she was in the process of writing down her emotions. Though the defeated “Day of Show” may seem at first to be optimistic with the opening line “It all works out,” it’s sung in a resigned sigh, because she’s reciting her go-to advice for her friends, and it’s advice she can’t take herself. She concludes: “I forget just how to find these words / To mean much anymore.” It’s a sad realization, and there’s no answer as to why her belief behind that phrase faded.
The most heartbreaking moment on the EP is the less-than-a-minute ballad “Two Weeks in December.” It’s a vignette with a lot more of that empty space, yet it’s pleasant and useful. The song has eight lines in total, but the last one is enough to satisfy: “So I flew back to L.A., but not back to you.”
This EP might be overlooked—perhaps due to its brevity, or the fact that it’s Skullcrusher’s debut, or because it was released amid Taylor Swift’s folklore craze or Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher hype. But this EP—like those albums—stands bravely on its own, inhabiting a newfound world, and it’s both idyllic and tragic. It’s placid and romantic, but it’s also broken and trying to heal. It feels like the weird time period that follows a breakup where you’re brimming with heartache but you’re learning how to ease yourself back into solitude. And all that’s left at that point is growth. There’s freedom in that space, and Skullcrusher—like the rest of us—wants to take matters into her own hands, and ends the record with the casual execution of a dramatic act: “For a day I’ll spend alone in my room / Leaning in, I cut the back of my hair.”
Danielle Chelosky is a New York based writer who interns at Paste and freelances for The FADER, MTV News, Consequence of Sound, and more. She’s from Long Island, goes to school in Westchester, and lingers in Brooklyn. She embarrasses herself on her Twitter @dniellechelosky.