Several years back, Haley Dahl was nursing a broken heart. So, in a poetic gesture, she became obsessed with a different type of void: caves. Dahl, who performs as Sloppy Jane, realized that a cave—a natural echo chamber—would be a great place to record an album. After exploring many options, she chose West Virginia’s Lost World Caverns as her underground recording studio. Over two weeks in 2019, Dahl, 21 fellow musicians, and a film crew trekked below the earth between 3 p.m. and 8 a.m. to record. The descent was only the first logistical difficulty: Getting a piano underground took a day in each direction, and the humid conditions required stationing the recording equipment in a car aboveground and dangling the wires through a hole.
Dahl possesses grand visions but also, crucially, the determination to actually realize them; Sloppy Jane is exhibit A. Dahl started the band as a Los Angeles high schooler, working with a series of collaborators that at one point included Phoebe Bridgers, whose Dead Oceans imprint, Saddest Factory, is releasing Sloppy Jane’s new record, Madison. Now based in Brooklyn, the band has evolved from a punk project to something more like avant-garde chamber pop, with performances that have featured Dahl spewing blue paint in a suit that she one day plans to eat.
Dahl has said that Madison was “written as a grand gesture for somebody who I was trying to make love me.” Time and again, the songs feel caught between the hoped-for romance and a hard-to-swallow reality. “Party Anthem” is trapped in a prison of unrequited love, but the band’s rousing orchestrals makes Dahl’s regret sound bombastic. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be/Everything I needed to be,” she belts. On the downcast piano ballad “Jesus and Your Living Room Floor,” she wonders if it’s easier to be appreciated in the afterlife. As the music gradually expands into dramatic distortion, it’s apparent that the effort of underground recording was worth it: Every instrument, from a thick drum to the careening guitar that eventually joins in, sounds massive.
Madison is full of beauty, but Dahl’s explorations of heartache and insecurity don’t shy away from ugliness. She pictures herself collapsing on the ground covered in ants, or swallowing fast-setting concrete and plunging into a lake; her voice quivers as she describes herself as “imprisoned in a wedding pigeon body with a tin-can face.” On “The Constable,” she spots a man cruelly kicking a dog, and rather than recoil, she’s aroused: “And God/I wanted that dog to be me.” The anguish she wrings out of that “God” is a gut punch.
Dahl often juxtaposes her grotesqueries against whimsical instrumentation, making them feel especially twisted, but also a little romantic. “Judy’s Bedroom,” a grim singalong that evokes the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours,” recounts the real-life murder of the titular character by her husband. “Judy does whatever she pleases/Cause she’s with Jesus now,” Dahl sings with macabre warmth. “Lullaby Formica,” a dreamlike, horse-themed take on the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme, ends on a grim but touching note: “If you become a carousel/Or if you’re sold for glue/Or if you’re cold to me/My tongue will stick to you.”
Dahl is an imaginative lyricist and her imagery, while hardly direct, is always delicious. But it is testament to her strength as a composer that her instrumental arrangements are equally evocative. “Bianca Castafiore” (like the opera singer from Tintin) is a topsy-turvy instrumental in which Dahl performs wordless vocal acrobatics, “whoo-hoos” and “oohs” somersaulting through the air. “How come you only touch me when you brush my hair?/You don’t care,” sings Dahl on the title track with jaunty, theatrical desperation. A third of the way through, the song’s symphony sours, and the audience lets out an “aww.” But Dahl is more than capable of carrying the show.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.