On January 5, 2011, the influential webzine Pitchfork reviewed Penelope, giving it an 8.2 out of 10. Jayson Greene wrote the following review, which is so beautiful and thoughtful we’re posting it here in its entirety:
The quietly devastating song cycle Penelope begins with an unexpected homecoming. A man returns to his wife’s doorstep after 20 years in an unnamed war, suffering brain damage– a shadow of his former self. The woman takes this mournful figure in gravely, sorting through her ambivalence, bitterness, and grief by reading to him from Homer’s Odyssey. The story’s parallels to their lives– a husband striving heroically over vast distances and years to return to his wife– become a psychological probe for the woman to sound the depths of her shell-shocked husband’s ruined mind. Speaking to him through the poem, she is able to gently coax him back from oblivion.
This eloquent meditation on death, memory, being lost, and homecoming is the work of three women. Playwright and poet Ellen McLaughlin wrote the incisive lyrics; Sarah Kirkland Snider composed the dreamily disquieting score; and Shara Worden, the smoky-voiced contralto of My Brightest Diamond, sings it. Together, they render the titular woman’s voice with unsettling clarity. Penelope is a gorgeous piece of music, but it is more– it is also a hauntingly vivid psychological portrait, one that explores a dark scenario with a light, almost quizzical touch, finding poetic resonances everywhere.
Snider’s score, written for the new-music ensemble Signal, is the work’s worried heart. Penelope lives entirely inside the heads of two people who can’t communicate, and her music, coursing with mute anxiety, reflects that solitude. The strings hover like low-hanging fog, repeating a few harmonically troubled chords in softly insistent strokes– the veil of confusion that clouds the man’s memories, perhaps, or the heavy silence that settles in between the newly estranged married couple.
This fraught suggestibility between music and theme takes Penelope deep beneath your skin. On “This Is What You’re Like”, Worden’s character tries to remind her husband of the man he once was; when she sings the line, “you are a man who, when the music dies away, you keep on dancing,” the music stumbles briefly into a few bars of a half-remembered waltz. The story opens on the woman’s house by the sea; a lapping and receding violin figure traces the shore while quiet gull-like cries circle overhead.
Snider’s music lives in a netherland between richly orchestrated indie rock and straight chamber music, an increasingly populous inter-genre space that, as of yet, has produced only a few clear, confident voices. Snider is perhaps the most sophisticated of them all: No matter what perspective you bring to this album, it bears profound rewards. Shara Worden’s eerily poised singing will raise the hackles of St. Vincent fans, while Snider’s ambiguous sense of harmony might put classical listeners in mind of Charles Ives’ similarly memory-haunted Three Places in New England or Arvo Pärt’s elegant simplicity. The work doesn’t straddle a stylistic crossroads so much as swirl together artistic currents, creating a slipstream where electric guitar, chimes, strings, drum kit, and subtle electronic touches interchange fluidly.
There is an obsessive quality to Penelope‘s cellular, repeating mini-melodies, and it is echoed in McLaughlin’s mantra-like lyrics. Songs hinge on poetically elusive but piercingly direct turns of phrase– “Can’t you do that?/ Can’t you hide me, God?”; “The world is never done with you/ The world wants her travelers to stay lost.” Worden sings these words with enigmatic wisdom, investing something as vague as “I am known for who I am” with palpable regret. McLaughlin’s words speak with wry frankness about the burdens of waiting on, and caring for, men, and this touch makes Penelope a feminist story, a sly reappraisal of a male-centric tale on the order of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Like a siren song, it cloaks rocky edges in something soft and lyrical. Beneath the placid surface, you can hear the sound of one woman’s thoughts, rendered with such care and intimacy that you can sense her staring out of the record back at you.