Happy Abandon’s ‘Facepaint’ and the Exploration of Grief

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The North Carolina-based indie rock group paints a portrait of loss and acceptance in their full-length debut.

It’s rare to find a meticulously strung together work of musical art that manages to convey the realest and rawest emotion — loss — without losing voice, emotion, or authenticity; but in indie rock group Happy Abandon’s debut album, Facepaint, all of that (and more) is accomplished.

Facepaint, a 10-track wonder (out today), explores themes of loss and remembrance through transcendent lyrics, beautifully arranged instrumentals, and powerful vocals. At first listen, Happy Abandon’s debut may seem like another indie breakup album, but listen closely and you’ll find that it is much more. Dedicated to three friends of the band who passed away, Facepaint actually, well, paints a portrait of what it is to be in mourning. There’s a hope of happiness and acceptance that’s explored in a few of the tracks, but its overall tone is one of moroseness and grief. But that’s okay — Happy Abandon’s delicate and blunt honesty about what it means to grieve is what makes their debut an exceptionally beautiful work of art.

Happy Abandon’s debut may seem like another indie breakup album, but listen closely and you’ll find that it is much more.

Led by lead vocalist and lyricist Peter Vance, whose voice is an entrancing blend of indie folk and rock stylings (think Sufjan Stevens and Vance Joy meet Jeff Buckley), and backed by percussionist Jake Waits and bassist Justin Ellis, Facepaint is one of those albums that will hit you at exactly the right moment, resurfacing feelings you may have been afraid to face, while reminding you all the while that it’s absolutely, completely okay to feel them. Vance’s lyrics are heartfelt and thoughtful, blending a keen ear for great music with an open and honest poeticism that will sit with you for hours, even days, after you listen.

From left to right: Jake Waits, Justin Ellis, and Peter Vance. Image credit: Happy Abandon

His expert writing lends itself particularly well to tracks like “Take Me” and “Love Like Language.” In “Take Me,” Vance cuts straight to the soul with delicately sung lines like, “I saw the world through your eyes/ once you shed your disguise,” before the song swells into a deep and hopeful anthem with the repeated chorus of “What will you take from it?/ Oh, well you can take me.” The ending of “Take Me” feels like an ever-quickening heartbeat, racing and swelling and soaring through Vance’s powerful tenor belt and the magical strings and piano, before slowing down bit by bit until the end’s gentle calmness.

“Love Like Language” is perhaps the most poetic track on the album: “Clouds like bruises lie down the skin of the sky/ Casually casting the shadows that sit at my side.” Vance’s lyricism is accentuated by his throaty, yet clear, belting falsetto and the steady beat that keeps the song moving forward. Later, he sings: “I hear it in your voice/ Your words are distorted hidden within all the noise/ I see it in your face/ Longing for silence, but somehow afraid of it.”

“Clouds like bruises lie down the skin of the sky/ Casually casting the shadows that sit at my side.”

Lyrics like these are hard to come by, and Vance’s are masterfully reminiscent of those of the ever-emotional Bon Iver (see: “Skinny Love”).

But Vance’s lyrics aren’t the only thing that make Facepaint a superior debut for Happy Abandon. The music itself is fantastically arranged, with an awesome blend of guitar-heavy bangers and softer indie ballads (all of which, I must add, are superb). Happy Abandon’s skill as a band, creating a seamless experience for their listeners, is seen particularly in the masterful darkness of tracks like “If I Stare,” the one single off of Facepaint. What is truly great about this song is its subtle callback to the ending of an earlier song on the album, “Beneath Our Feet.” Both end with eerie waltz-like vocalizations and whistling, but “If I Stare” takes the themes of “Beneath Our Feet” and adds a bone-chilling dissonance that elevates the song to another level entirely.

The band’s gift for engaging arrangements is not lost in their softer tracks — in fact, it’s only magnified. In two of the most heartbreaking songs on the album — “Stop Taking Care of Me” and “Cursed or Worse” — the emotional lyrics are supported by gentle, yet almost desperate violin and guitar melodies. The instrumentals serve in their own right to further the overarching theme of Facepaint: what it feels like to experience loss, no matter where that feeling may be coming from.

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