Concert preview: Strand of Oaks lets it all hang out on the ultra-personal Heal

From the July 31, 2014 edition

Heal, the latest effort from Philadelphia-based musician Timothy Showalter, who records and performs as Strand of Oaks, doubles as a musical version of director Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” The album traces Showalter’s maturation from precocious, Smashing Pumpkins-obsessed teenager to conflicted adult with a fondness for moody folk-rocker Jason Molina.

Along the way, the musician struggles with substance abuse, spousal infidelity and intense self-loathing. At different points on the album he refers to himself as “an abomination” and “fat, drunk and mean.”

“The record deals with different relationships I’ve had, sure, but I think the most unhealthy relationship I have on the album is between me and myself,” said Showalter, 32, reached by phone in late-July. “My relationship with my own insecurities and my development as a human is in the most need of therapy, and was in the most need of writing this record. I wanted to step outside and be the narrator pointing a finger back at me, like, ‘What are you doing? You can be better than this.’”

In turn, the musician takes unflinching stock of his life and development, noting it’s still an ongoing process (“It’s why the album is called Heal and not Healed,” he said). On the searing “Mirage Year,” for one, he writes about the various affairs he and his wife engaged in over the years — “There was one for me, and many more for you,” he sings — attributing much of the couple’s infidelity to his own failings. “I wasn’t there, I admit,” he drawls atop measured drums and a steady trickle of piano.

“Since it’s not a metaphor I had to ask my wife permission. ‘Is it OK for me to write this song?’” Showalter said. “She obviously was sad for all the right reasons [because] it was a very private point in our lives. That was the hard part. These songs came so easily, but it was hard to edit, and there were times I said, ‘Should I go this far?’ But I had a goal to make this all about honesty, and I didn’t want to shy from anything on this record.”

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom, and there are moments of pure, unadulterated joy scattered throughout. Witness album opener “Goshen ’97,” which takes its name from the small Indiana town where Showalter was born and celebrates the spirit of discovery that launched his musical career.

“I was rotting in the basement … then I found my dad’s old tape machine,” Showalter sings between lighter-waving guitar solos. “That’s where the magic began.”

“People are attracted like moths to the flame to the more negative and sensational parts, and the record has its share of tough times, but a lot of it is just me listening to music,” said Showalter, who was born to a car salesman father and a secretary mother and first picked up a guitar after becoming enchanted with Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.” “I love music so much, and I wanted to make a record that celebrated the fact that music helped pull me through everything.”

Dusdin Condrin photo