Indie

The Weather Station And The New Grief

After maybe four months of answering repetitive questions about climate change — and reading back some warped versions of her answers in magazines and websites around the world — Tamara Lindeman needed a break.

Released at the start of February, Lindeman’s fifth LP as The Weather Station, the velvet-gloved and glittering Ignorance, was one of 2021’s first consensus favorites. After putting down the acoustic guitar, Lindeman managed to wrap sophisticated pop grandeur fit for Fleetwood Mac around the kind of vulnerable confessions that framed her early works as a half-whispering singer-songwriter. But that deft balance, Lindeman learned with some surprise, was at best a secondary interest for most interviewers. Instead, they wanted to know how she’d written such fetching songs about oil spills, dying birds, and another novel plague of our Anthropocene, climate grief. And by the way, some wondered, could those very songs help solve the problems?

“There is a heaviness in talking about this, because it feels very personal and intimate,” Lindeman said in early December from her home in Toronto. “When ‘famous’ figures start talking about climate change, they make major mistakes. Once people started to ask me about it, it felt like a minefield.”

I first spoke with Lindeman about Ignorance in the early autumnal days of 2019, when it didn’t yet have its name. I was working on a piece for NPR about the groundswell of musical nods to global warming and how I expected them to be a major storyline of 2020. (Wait, something else happened?) I called Lindeman after noticing not only some subtle references to climate change in her earlier works but also after admiring her bravado on social media, where she admonished politicians and encouraged listeners to care about, say, collapsing ice shelves and the policies quickening the pace. She was even hosting public conversations about it.

Lindeman was almost finished with the album, her debut for Fat Possum; months before the pandemic scuttled all schedules, she hoped to release it near the middle of 2020. She talked about those songs with cautious optimism then, an uncharacteristic boom to her soft voice. These tunes would arrive as Trump’s only term started to end, she hoped, so that her southern neighbors could get back to the business of fixing the extinction-level mess we’ve made, a hopeful notion I cautiously indulged. At that point, her biggest question seemed how directly to address climate change, for fear it may be cheesy or offputting. “I go back and forth between telling it like it is and that fear of ‘the protest song,’” she had said. “But that’s dumb, because this is clearly what’s happening.”

Ignorance is not a didactic record out to change your mind about climate science or unveil advice about changing your behavior; it is, instead, a nuanced expression of grief, a lament of loss that centers on love for the beauty around us. It’s possible to hear its songs so much you can sing along to the breezy “Parking Lot” or the peacocking “Atlantic” before you notice their messages — the emotional fatigue of existential despair and the terror of the headlines, respectively. That was, for Lindeman, one point: “I wanted it to be approachable in the way that pop music is sneaky: ‘Wait a minute, what am I singing?’”

But the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Ignorance was finally released, provided a new context. At a moment when so much of the world was chronically grieving but when we somewhat understood that collective actions could help us save ourselves, Lindeman’s considered references to living at a time when life may very well be ending felt felicitous. (The fact that no one was touring during the pandemic allowed her to avoid reductive and useless charges of hypocrisy, too — that is, “How can you care about the climate when you tour?”) Most headlines touted her as some new climate-change singer-savior. Rolling Stone even wondered “Can an indie rocker change the climate conversation?

Ignorance offers a sophisticated emotional map of the various ways we might feel about the climate. By speaking to our collective failure and extending solidarity as we try to face it together, the songs feel both like a box of tissues and a balm. I spent half of the year walking from Mexico to Canada, trying to stay in front of California wildfires and make it through Oregon before the season’s running water disappeared. In that setting, where the encroachment of climate change provided a steady hum of daily dread, even the most tender moments of Ignorance seemed to me like fight music. Over drums that could feel like fists, Lindeman articulated the confusion of a calamity we somehow continue to abide.

It was nice, Lindeman admitted, to feel like she struck a collective nerve. But when she was being interviewed about Ignorance, journalists often made her feel noble or admirable for writing about climate change, a notion she flatly rejects. “To me, it shouldn’t be unusual or a sign of virtue to want to talk about something that is happening,” she said. Indeed, the bad news is in the very air we breathe and the water we drink — not making it a routine element of art should become the exception. Put another way, the news shouldn’t be that someone has written a song about climate change; the news should be what the song has to say about our varied experiences teetering here at the brink.

This means, I think, that the emotional landscape of music is changing, its breadth stretching to include more songs about our ruptured environment, a loss so vast we cannot actually comprehend it. As listeners and critics, we’re going to have meet these songs where they arrive by learning more about what is at stake as the climate changes. People will experience this sixth extinction in different ways, whether that means their native lands are swallowed by rising tides or that they watch from afar as still-unnamed species continue to collapse, until it eventually reaches their descendants’ doorstep, too.

The assortment of emotions will be complicated — grief, rage, apathy, shock, disgust, and so on. We’ll need to understand the science behind climate change and the inequality it will exacerbate. We’ll need to understand the psychology of loss on this unknown scale and hope that exists beyond reason. Just as every love song is not the same, every song about climate change — and they will soon start to pile up — will not be the same. It will be the critic’s job to integrate them into the larger social conversation about how we save whatever it is we have left; to do that, we must leave behind facile notions of what we think we know.

Lindeman stopped talking about climate change, in part, because she was exhausted by seeing her answers misrepresented by writers who only wanted to skim the surface of this unfathomably deep subject. We’re going to have to do better, because this topic is doomed to be our future, artistically and otherwise. We have to learn the language.

“There will be great protest music made about climate change, but I don’t think we have done that yet because our emotional body around this is still so unresolved and misunderstood,” Lindeman said, sighing. “Maybe Gen Z will be better?”

If we’re aggressive and smart and altruistic and lucky, songs about our climate catastrophe will perhaps someday seem like outdated mementos, reminding us of high anxiety that we endured like some musty “I Survived Y2K” T-shirt. But those odds only get longer. As Lindeman coos during one of Ignorance’s best moments, “At some point, you’d have to live as if the truth was true.”

More than the development or demise of any microgenre or change in distribution models, the way that art reflects and helps shape our conversations about whether or not our species can save itself might be music’s most pressing story in the decades we might be lucky enough to live. That’s a fatalistic premise for the artwork of the future, I suppose, but the songs of Ignorance made a year of devastating environmental headlines slightly easier to handle. We’re going to need more albums like it.

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