SUSTO, Charleston’s prodigal band, returns Saturday to play the beloved Music Farm. The band made the local spotlight in 2014 with their self-titled debut album. That record won such acclaim as holding the all-time best seller spot, even two years after the release, at local record store The Vinyl Countdown. SUSTO released their much-anticipated sophomore album, “& I’m Fine Today,” on Jan. 13 to similar acclaim, as Charleston City Paper called it “well-wrought and primed for the big stage” and they were featured in NPR Music’s “Nine Artists To Watch For At AmericanaFest 2016.”
CisternYard Media had the chance to cover to the album’s live premiere at Monster Music a week before the album’s official release. Now, a week before their homecoming show, we revisit it in excitement and contemplation.
SUSTO and the ephemerality of Hell
“They promised us you were going straight to hell when you died,” SUSTO sings on the song “Gay in the South,” addressing the condemnation that rests in the back of every confirmed sinner’s mind.
The resulting emotions, guilt, anxiety and pain, descend upon your chest, sinking into you, wrapping around your ribcage and your lungs.
They plant you into your chair, cementing you to a single, painful moment. You are unable to stand up and walk away.
These feelings project from the synths cycling in the background of the album opener, “Far out Feeling,” building to the moment when the violin breaks through, along with profound emotion.
Guilt, anxiety and pain, especially in the Bible Belt, are traps perpetuated by an entrenched psychological warfare. This warfare is waged, starting at an early age, against those who do not fit the normative construct. On every block in the South you can find a room where doom is held over children’s heads as they are told, over the chiming of the church bells, to live a certain way. If you step outside of the box, again, you are going straight to hell.
On their newest album “& I’m Fine Today,” Charleston’s very own SUSTO navigates the troughs of this kind of guilt and the sludge of anxiety and pain associated with it. The record is simultaneously a confession of sin and an affirmation of it. The song “Gay in the South” acknowledges the two biggest crimes a young person can commit against God according to southern society: homosexuality and premarital sex. And with each melancholy strike of the piano’s chords, it works through the pains of believing you have sinned and disappointed your family, your lover and yourself.
However, though the music deals with poignant and heartrending issues, it refuses to be a manifesto of depression. Instead, the record encourages listeners to challenge ideas of forgiveness and acceptance. Self-acceptance is the light and the current which underlies and propels the album forward: it is the fast drums in “Waves,” the jazzy horns in “Cosmic Cowboy” and the singing chorus of “Jah Werx.” But the band understands that self-acceptance is not necessarily an easy mindset to achieve. “Gay in the South” offers various solutions throughout, one being “Don’t let a test result ruin your life.” A line like this, intentionally ambiguous, is everything from a wink and a nudge to a discouraged freshman, to a tearful hug given under astringent hospital lights. This is the beauty of the record: it is intrinsically accepting. No matter how serious or frivolous your struggle may seem to an outsider, it is real. Thus your achievement of self-acceptance is just as important.
Another solution offered in “Gay in the South” is “Find a more loving place to be, sometimes all it takes is a change in locale.” The song “Mountain Top” explores this idea, as it follows people along their journey up the Blue Ridge Mountains. On this song, the howling synths and wailing refrain take a darker tone, suggesting the persistent sense of anxiety from which they are running. Whispering as the song ends, “We got lost on a mountain top, somewhere between sanity and everything we left behind that we may never see again,” SUSTO reiterates the validity of pain and the visceral feeling of wanting to run from it. Yet there may be hope in that phrase. Call them crazy, but you might just have to leave sanity behind to find peace.
In “Hard Drugs,” they experiment with this idea of surrendering sanity for peace. The line “I had a dream that we were doing hard drugs in a street alley, you were lying dead next to me” expresses the subconscious’ deepest fears about what we really sacrifice when we escape reality. In fact, while the album definitely does not discourage experimenting with drugs, it never suggests that they offer any real clarity. Peace and clarity only come from self-acceptance, which is emphasized by background harmony sung along to the line “I don’t care who’s asking, you can tell them the truth. I’ve had a long time struggle with substance abuse, but I feel fine.”
Throughout “& I’m Fine Today,” SUSTO rides the wave of life, expressing the troughs of anxiety with chamber synths and the crests of peace with clear acoustic riffs. They struggle with remedies for the lows as the noise increases and exhale easy choruses when one works, whether it is permanent or not. Sometimes they break the mold that society prescribes, and other times they fit right into it. The lesson they teach us is that none of it matters as long as you can live at peace and accept yourself. Whether you are burdened by guilt, anxiety, depression or substance abuse, do not be weighed down by the hell you think awaits you. Free yourself and smile, for as SUSTO sings in probably the most profound lyric of the album, “I know now hell is nothing but a headspace,” meaning that it is actually ephemeral rather than eternal.
Gather on Saturday with the community of Charlestonians shedding their hells, laughing along to the lyrics, “I’m a southern man but I’m an atheist” and yelling in affirmation as the band asks, “Is there anybody in there smoking weed with God?”
Commune with the college kids, service industry folks and professionals, all brought together by love of the music and the chance to have a good time.
With an album as excellent as “& I’m Fine Today,” there is a chance that this will be one of the last homecoming shows SUSTO plays before they are household names. You will not want to miss this celebration of such an outstanding local act; it is SUSTO’s time to shine and Charleston’s moment to enjoy.
We can not wait to see you there!