Zhalih’s “Secret” Reviewed by Dessicant

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

― Roald Dahl

In a world where we seemingly see everything, know everything about each other’s lives – where the slightest minutiae are ceaselessly simulcast, when we peer into each other’s living rooms, bedrooms, often on the daily – we might ask ourselves, at this point, what exactly is secret, in the Panopticon? In a ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ reality, we share slivers and cross-sections of our existences, share our quirks and interests and relate, through pictures and text, sometimes, fleetingly, in person. It’s tempting to think we know everything, that we understand one another because we see so much, seemingly know so much – we share so much of ourselves, willfully, regularly. But, somehow, the divide seems unbreachable, we are walled in our own ceramic temple, perhaps sometimes coming close to the orbit of other pearls. We’re never really getting in – at the end of the day, we must take others at their word, what they choose to show to us. They remain a mystery, a microcosm unto themselves, each dizzying in their infinite complexity.

So perhaps we will never jump that v o i d – perhaps we are trapped in solipsism, doomed to filtering everything through our individual experiences, history, background, imprinting – still, we live here, together, on this blue marble, in this snowglobe. Each to their own and all, we constantly strive to understand, to comprehend each infinite mystery encountered. We encounter the mystery and we listen.

So, again, at this point, what constitutes a secret, and what purpose do they serve, in a world of over-sharing? For one, there’s the type of secret referenced in that Roald Dahl quote, an unseen, subtle, scintillating world surrounding us, little did we realize, just waiting to be appreciated. Take, in tandem, Rainer Marie Rilke’s “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.” Let us talk of hidden, subtle things, or things that matter, or not at all. Secrets, when everyone tells so much, seem like a choice, and they seem cherished somehow because of it. Or perhaps they even more power, possess more dark gravity than before the Book Of Life started mimeographing our daily existences? Secrets can also bring us together, in a rare, raw moment of understanding. Secrets seem real, in the simulacrum, the temple of artifice. They offer an opportunity for a messy, chaotic encounter, a chance meeting with the sublime, or perhaps the ridiculous, the embarrassing, the dangerous.  Anything could happen and that’s how life is and if we listen perhaps we might learn, to slightly better understand one another, inside our own swirling infrastructure.

Secret, from Portland singer/songwriter Zhalih, seems like a haven inside this hectic datasphere, a hidden place, where we may have real encounters, where we may talk of real things, or not at all. A spare skeleton of barely plucked acoustic guitar and airy, layered vocals are the lattice around which most of these eight tracks weave and pulse – each short, at around a bare 2:00, coming and going like a passing comment, or the fleeting memory of a dream. “Da Da” summons the swoon, with a minimalist pulsing guitar line, and Zhalih singing a near-lullaby, in her own wordless croon.  It’s the sound of someone singing to themselves, walking from to to fro – staring out the window. There is a mournful lilt to the melody, but also content. Like a harpist by a lake, mourning her drowned lost love.

Words form on “Insane”, again – a pulsing guitar line, this time with a bluesy engine overtop. “I’m not giving up/no/no/I’m gonna stay insane.” There is a rough, soulful quality to Zhalih’s music, like wood that’s been sitting in the sun, like walking next to a warm asphalt where there is sage and sunflowers and maybe snakes. Here, she begins to seemingly harmonize with herself, layering vocals upon vocals, although they’re barely there, a grace note, on “Insane”. The vocal harmonies increase, as the album rolls, teeming and coalescing into opalescent nebulae of golden soprano, as tuned as a church bell, and always on-point. Zhalih never misses a beat or hits an off-note, her intonation is beyond impeccable, and the first reason you need to hear this short album, and everything this talented young musician produces. The fact that she harmonizes with herself makes for an interesting, confessional, and also uniquely resonant experience. Zhalih focuses a lot on the vocals and harmonies, and she’s very good at it, both harmonizing with herself and others. It brings to mind recent avant composers like Panda Bear, with his elegiac Young Prayer. We wonder what someone like Brian Wilson would have made, with an ear and obsession for glorious, glowing vocal ensembles, had they access to bedroom recording equipment? Music made in the bedroom, by one’s self, has a particularly hushed, honest feeling to it – you can be more yourself when you’re by yourself, and the art that comes from that crucible is unique. The ability to make delicious sounding recordings for either cheap, or for free by ourselves, with our own gear, is yielding a new and particular strain of gilded lilies and emerald tapestries, gorgeous art that is honest and not meant to be commercial. This would have been hard to come by, 60 or 70 years ago.

Encountering Zhalih in this intimate space, she reveals more of herself, shows a bit more. Somewhat reclusive of a personality, she can be slightly withdrawn and atmospheric in person, it can be difficult to make out the lyrics, which become more of a shoegaze-y, Rothko-like lightshow. On Secret, however, the words are clear and up-front, and we are offered a glimpse into her secret world, or what she chooses to share of it with us, at any cost. There is no over-arching theme, no concept or revelation – love seems to be an ingredient, a shadow lingering around the edges. “You can’t have me anymore/I’ve danced away/I’ve danced away,” she sings on “I’ve danced myself out of the pain/I’ve danced before to another plane (?)” she continues, in a hypnotic sing-song, before breaking into a fluent French. It’s unclear who the second-person You is, it’s like an overheard conversation, yet the emotion is unmistakable when she breaks into a keening, soaring, wordless chorus. It stands the hair on end, like a breeze over a gray lake, slightly ruffling the surface. And then, finally, there’s the album closer, “You Love Them”, with its epithet “When you love someone/you love them,” closing the ceremony with a note of finality and seeming resignation. Zhalih is letting us in on her secret, her world, showing us things. It’s vague and indistinct and that’s okay because a secret’s weight is really in the keeping, in what we make of them. For one moment, we stop, and pause, and come together, over something real. We drop the masks and our mother-of-pearl facade fissures a little bit, for a moment. One final quote, from James Joyce, “Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.”

dessicant
J. Simspon occupies the interzone between criticism and creativity, dwelling in liminal landscapes, looking for the soul of art. He is the author of Forestpunk, an online journal tracing horror, supernatural, and the occult through all aspects of culture. He is the co-founder of Bitstar Productions, a Portland-based visual arts collective, with his partner Lily H. Valentine, with whom he also plays in the band Meta Pinnacle.