Wax Idols’ third album comes webbed over with melodrama, the kind that makes pain legible and real, paradoxically, by pushing it so far away that it becomes a parody of itself. Sometimes that’s the only way to hold pain that would otherwise burn you up from the inside. Written in the midst of lead singer Hether Fortune’s doomed marriage and subsequent divorce, American Tragic isn’t shy about tracing the cartoonish contours of suffering. It’s both Wax Idols’ heaviest album and the one that enjoys the most levity, and it finds incredible motion on the axis of that contradiction.
American Tragic immediately sets itself apart from Wax Idols’ last LP, Discipline and Desire, whose loose and hooky post-punk kept a certain degree of distance between Fortune and her listeners. Her voice comes up in the mix here, and her lyrics carve sharper lines at the forefront for her most tangible work to date. If Discipline and Desire aimed to strike a pose and keep its cool, American Tragic tests just how much weight Wax Idols can hold while holding that same posture. Fortune saturates the record with feeling, but never loses her sense of fun, and that playfulness enables her to process total emotional collapse from a place of empathy rather than defensiveness.
Fortune’s lines alternate between hopelessly romantic and unflinchingly cynical; loss tends to work in extremes, and she offers plenty in her struggle to find language to fill the void. “As I exorcise our love’s demise/ And think my last thoughts of you in blue/ I recall the sound in the palm of your hand/ Dust to dust away with you,” she sings on “Lonely You”, which also sees her calling out to the object of her rage, “wanting for you still.” On “Severely Yours”, she navigates the blurry seam between desire and fear of loss inside an uptempo goth pop dressing complete with booming bass and scratched-out acoustic chords. “I can’t wait ’til I forget you exist,” she seethes on “Deborah”, which peaks with one of the record’s strongest hooks before it sags with a bizarre pseudo-rap at the breakdown. Fortune’s gripping white-knuckled onto survival, leaving little room for shades of grey.
Of course it’s ridiculous — no one’s quicker to own up to the record’s absurdity than Fortune. “That’s the only way that I was able to get through it, was to detach from it and to turn it into something ridiculous, comedy-tragedy style,” she said in a recent interview with The Media. But that tragicomic space is still empty enough in pop that hearing a new voice inside it doesn’t feel like a rehash — how many women have gotten to mope around like The Cure without facing scrutiny about their mental health and predatory tendencies that Robert Smith generally gets to avoid? Fortune relishes that big, performative sadness, making herself vulnerable through its artifice. Sometimes the only way to wrap yourself around an unthinkable loss is to restage it on your own terms. On American Tragic, Fortune rises up to squeeze every last drop of drama from her misery. You can’t prevent loss, but you sure as hell can recast yourself as the star of your own tragedy.
Essential Tracks: “Lonely You”, “Deborah”, and “Severely Yours”