I'm listening to Nehedar's newly released album, This Heart, and thinking about all my friends who are unemployed. Emilia Cataldo, the singer/songwriter behind Nehedar and a veteran of New York City's anti-folk music scene, wrote the album while struggling with whether to quit, and then being fired from, an emotionally abusive office job. The songs, however, don't dwell explicitly on these specifics, and even "Something to Call Mine," which Cataldo told me she wrote about her last day of work, could just as well be a break up song, her employer referenced only as a nameless "you," while the song is softly personal, melancholy and longing-filled. The vagueness is intentional and right, since the longing isn't for the desk and coffee machine, or even the paycheque. It's for, as the title says, something that's hers, her place in the world. Once teenage angst and collegiate idealism stale, and neither disappointment or euphoria is so surprising anymore, the heartache of adulthood is this existential question's steady, nondramatic persistence and it carries all the weight of any great romance: What to do with a life? And though, culturally, we've come to recognize the importance of work-life balance, this question is still most often answered through a career choice.
So I think of my friends who are unemployed, under-employed, employed in dead-end jobs or juggling multiple jobs. I think of talented, intelligent people losing faith in themselves and frustrated with doors that only seem to hinge closed, and stories of self-made heroes ending always with the same sigh and qualifier, "but that was a different time." I think of the insecurity and the insistence that goes into every resume, every interview, and I'm grateful to Emilia for the rhythmic abstraction, for the reminder that there's something going on here that can't be articulated in unemployment rates and number of new jobs created. That it's choice at stake and the immeasurable, almost inconceivable, almost idiotic, strength it takes to assert any say in directing your life when every option seems past the expiry date.
In Cataldo's own words: "The album is about wanting to quit, being royally lost in the activities that you feel you're 'supposed to do,' like a job, but I mean quitting everything [too]. Being overwhelmed. And then losing it, and being better... the attachments that we get to the things that destroy us... [hitting] rock bottom and the slow climb out." It's an album about discovering choice, but discovering, too, the limitations of choice, and its cost. There's a strong sense of childhood nostalgia throughout, multiple references to kings and queens, and a declaration in the last song: "I won't let go of childish things" -- "things" meaning more than anything the ability to dream. However, Cataldo self-reflectively plays off this as well, as in "What's Becoming," where lyrics about loving what kills us are put to a peppy, synthesized beat, but with a strange dark twist, like it's the theme song for a demonic funhouse. This wry humour makes the grip of childhood appear equally as something to be overcome. It's in childhood, after all, that we're taught to do what we're supposed to and that, among this, is not to quit.
The edge between childhood and adulthood, between fantasy and reality, is where This Heart sits, leaning a little one way or the other as it switches between melodious and haunting ("Bells of the City" is a beautiful example of this, its distant-sounding trumpet and stark piano, paired with Cataldo's strong, calm voice, opens the album with an air of doomed inevitability), and playful, upbeat, occasionally old-world sounding tunes that seem like callbacks to dances around campfires and theatrical story-telling. At the end, Emilia leaves us with movement, with questions and emotions, the honest act of the "slow climb out." And it is a slow climb, a life-long one. Unemployment is just as damaging psychologically as it is financially, cutting at our deepest sense of self, and even after economic recovery, even after all my friends are happy in fulfilling careers, I wonder what scars will remain. But having a job isn't an answer by itself. Having a job or being without one, the choice of what to do with a life is still there, renewing itself for better or for worse and compelling us, hopefully, to keep climbing.