Analogue Music | The Black Heart Procession’s 2 at 20

The Black Heart Procession’s 2 at 20

By Ian King

The Black Heart Procession were born out of misery in a very real way.

In the late 1990s, Pall Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel, two members of the indie rock band Three Mile Pilot, were sharing an apartment in their hometown of San Diego. They were also sharing the experience of a recent difficult breakup. After so many nights of drinking and grieving, they decided to see what would happen if they drank and grieved with instruments in their hands. “All of a sudden,” Jenkins told the Des Moines Cityview in 2004, “these songs started coming out of us -- not like we were so depressed we were going to slit our wrists. It was almost like making fun of ourselves, like ‘Oh my god this sucks so much.’”

The songs they pulled out of those nights would be brought together on 1, their 1998 debut album. The Black Heart Procession were a dark curiosity even by the flexible standards of San Diego’s post-hardcore scene. Antiquated and obscure instruments were central to their sound. Jenkins’ picking up his saw and playing it with finesse was a novel highlight of their live performances from this era. Nathaniel’s piano sounded turn-of-the-century on songs like “Heart Without a Home” and “Stitched to My Heart.”

That was the other thing: in the beginning, almost all of their songs had the word “heart” in the title. Despite the fact that the project had stemmed from a period of sincere sadness, the heart theme allowed Jenkins and Nathaniel a greater measure of artistic separation than is typically afforded rock groups, whose audiences historically have often tried to find the author’s real experiences in their lyrics. For instance, in an interview with the magazine Skyscraper conducted in late '98, Jenkins was asked the unlikely question, “Would you say that your music is a fair representation of yourself, and that it kind of mirrors your character?” His response, after a long pause the interviewer made sure to note, was “Only certain moments. Otherwise, I think it is really far away from what I am.”

Lyrically it is beyond bleak, yet the duo’s performances inject enough earnestness into the melodrama so that the album gets under the skin in a way pure theater cannot.

The Black Heart Procession would almost certainly need this separation to stay sane as their music pushed deeper into its own emotional morass. Their second album, 2, was released in May of 1999, right around the time that Skyscraper interview finally came out. It only has one song with the word “heart” in it, but in every other way it is an extension of the themes Jenkins and Nathaniel established with 1. Lyrically it is beyond bleak, yet the duo’s performances inject enough earnestness into the melodrama so that the album gets under the skin in a way pure theater cannot. It is a hallucinated midnight transmission from the harsh end of the American frontier. It is also, even more so than 1, a break-up album beyond compare.

The pretext of 1 is developed into a more fully realized song cycle on 2. Opening with the sound of a sheet metal storm, “The Waiter No. 2,” a kind of sequel to the first track on 1, succinctly sets the table. “In the time of this winter the waiter had not much to say/He could hear the clock but he could not find his way.” The key line, “If I’m so far from your heart, why do I feel it beat?” is repeated until its weight is fully felt. “And time won't wait for us,” comes the conclusion, the hopeless truth only starting to sink in.

With the next song, “Blue Tears,” the Black Heart Procession introduce a second complementary theme on 2 that carries on to (yes) 3, their next album. “It was my time spent with you before the war,” remembers Jenkins. The implementation of a war opens up the storyline possibilities of 2. War becomes either, in its literal sense, a narrative reason for the separation at the heart of 2, or a metaphor for a personal conflict that caused the separation. “I can see the ship's reflection in your eyes/ From behind me telling that I have no other way/ And it was hard to turn and leave,” Jenkins plainly laments. This sounds like a man being sent off to fight in Europe in 1917, but, as the very next song reveals, that reflection might be his own.

“If you are the lighthouse in the storm/ I'll be the ship filled with a thousand dead souls.” So appears the strongest image of “A Light So Dim,” an anguished revision of the “two ships passing in the night” trope. “A Light So Dim” is one of 2’s most remarkable passages, a slowcore sea shanty dirge, floating unencumbered yet impossibly heavy. This is the point at which it comes into view that not only are the Black Heart Procession a concept band about heartbreak, but 2 maps out the stages of losing love: first the growing distance of “The Waiter No. 2,” then the actual separation of “Blue Tears,” then being lost adrift with “A Light So Dim.”

Taking stock of the past begins with the fireside guitar tale, “Your Church is Red.” “Change your hate cause that’s your slave/ Turn your head from your evil ways/ Your church is red blood flows black from your heart.” These lines read as despondent as any that come before them, but really they mark the first cracks of light and insight following the initial hurt. The album is honest in its steps, though, so it is always two forward and one back. “When We Reach the Hill” gives into the trap of asking "Why?": “If you leave how can you leave on this hook/ 'cause we’ll grow old here, you can never leave.”

Though 2 has a continuous flow suited for CD, the halves of vinyl have their own design, and Side B begins cold and spare with Nathaniel on Wurlitzer and Jenkins on saw, his voice appropriately warped and distanced with effects on “Outside the Glass.” “I never knew what you were trying to say/ You spoke to me from outside the glass,” the narrator admits, possibly to the bottle having come between them.

Another one of 2’s strengths is that for all its lyrical continuity, it has a true album’s progress in that each song is musically distinct from the others. Instrumentation is different on each one; some feature toy piano and clavinet, others pump organ and trumpet, Moog, Roland SH-1000, the aforementioned saw and sheet metal, and on “Gently Off the Edge” which follows “Outside the Glass,” some mysterious “noises.”

The album’s cycle comes to a head with “It’s a Crime I Never Told You about the Diamonds In Your Eyes.” The lone uptempo song on the record, its relief is dampened by the way healing admission become tangled up with naive hope. “And maybe someday I will see/That it was a crime I never told you about the diamonds in your eyes/ And maybe someday we will be/ Away with the wind we’ll go.” The past is past except for when it isn’t, when it leaves a scar that never fully heals. The final trio of “My Heart Might Stop” (where this time the ship is one of gold that comes “to take you away,” an image that comes up again on 3), “Beneath the Ground” and the reprise of “The Waiter No. 3” don’t attempt to become whole again but to outrun confusion. Because the emotions of a breakup come in cycles, the album closes nearly where it began with “The Waiter No. 3,” going back over what was said and reliving where things went wrong.

It wouldn’t be appropriate for a band called the Black Heart Procession to write a happy ending, though over the 20 years since 2 came out, they have at times lightened up, at least musically—most notably on their 2002 album Amore del Tropico. 2 might not offer the “look on the bright side” commiseration of other popular break-up albums, but, for instance, the Cure’s Disintegration is a desolate world unto itself, too. There is solace to be extracted from 2’s extremes, from the feeling that things might be bad, but at least you don’t consider yourself a ship filled with a thousand dead souls (and if you can relate to that line, then here’s a record for you as well). The album’s words and wounds remain raw, as its sound and impact remain startling and singular.