Picture this: You open your eyes to nothing. You can sense that you have been asleep for a long time — maybe too long — but somehow, the sun still hasn't risen. You're alone. And you know that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong for you to still be here.
Everyone faces a different form of darkness. For indie-folk star Brian Straw, it was a 15-year battle with alcoholism. After all this time — with his final drink in 2017 — Baby Stars/Dead Languages is the story of his return to the light.
Twenty years ago, Straw was as close to the light as he had ever been. The Cleveland-based artist was expanding his musical reach to international levels, having embarked on several successful tours in the US and Europe. His career was in motion; he had love in his life. He was even being likened to legends like Bruce Springsteen. But with fame comes vices, and Straw fell victim to them.
In his own words: "This album is what happens after sobriety." After a 15-year hiatus, Straw is finally ready to share his story and find a new place for himself in the world. Baby Stars/Dead Languages is an absolute must-listen for all with open ears and compassionate, healing hearts.
The album's release was teased last month with the dropping of its third track, "I Still Dream of You." This is the first glimpse of light evident in the track-list, but that light comes not from looking forward — it comes from looking back. This is the tale of memory as motivation.
While delivered in a lighter tune and a higher pitch than the two tracks preceding it, "I Still Dream of You" carries its own sort of sorrow. A happy memory recalled from a place of darkness, allowing it to create a stark contrast. It is a reminder of how far you have strayed. It is a reminder of all the terrible things that have led you to darkness and away from those you loved.
This track is a beautiful juggling act of the emotions that accompany recovery, told through Straw's gauzy recollections of happier times. It is the song you listen to with the windows rolled down and the sun on your skin.
"Needle in the Creek" is its spiritual sequel, holding the fourth spot on the 12-song track-list and following up on the hopeful attitude of its predecessor. Straw is emboldened here by a beautiful woman; she takes his hand, guides him past temptation, and waits with him for the next bus home.
Whether this is a literal woman or a representation of the loved ones who helped him towards sobriety, we do not know. What Straw does confirm plainly is that this song is the turning point: The curtain has fallen, the current is rushing over his feet, and he is on his way to where he wants to go.
The jovial tune thrums with the pulse of Straw's excitement, making it one of the most energetic and upbeat on the album. He is ready. He sees the moon and stars above and can't wait for the sun to rise.
But it is a fact of life that progress is never linear. "Out of Doors" brings tragedy and triumph, hand in hand, at track nine on this heart-wrenching album. It is the sort of song that compels you to pull your loved ones close and dance with them, not because Straw sings of romance, but because he sings of loss.
In one of the most powerful songs on the track-list, Straw lays his anxieties bare: As hard as he knows he has worked to re-enter the world, the curtain is rising and has set his head spinning once more. What if he isn't ready? What if he is too scared to claim what he has earned? With the way he belts his fears into the microphone, you almost wonder if he thinks he is about to disappear.
The continued support of those who love him serves as a reminder to him to stand his ground. It will never be easy, but this is the moment: This is when Straw will see that his efforts were not in vain.
Nothing about this album is easy. Brian Straw can pull you through every emotion of addiction and recovery in a single song, and this album has 12 of them. Only his voice, smooth but rugged, and the deft strumming of the strings on his guitar can soften the emotional blows of hearing his journey.
At the end of the day, this album and this artist will not be remembered as a tragedy: They are both celebrating a tremendous victory. Brian Straw could have closed his eyes when he woke up in darkness, scared and alone, and it would have been a smooth and unknowing descent. Instead, he chose to fight his way back to the light. Baby Stars/Dead Languages marks a glorious sunrise and a beautiful question: What will Brian Straw choose to do with the day?
Stream Baby Stars/Dead Languages on DISCO.