What does belonging to yourself look and sound like in 2020? For Chicago’s V.V. Lightbody, it’s following her 2018 debut “Bathing Peach,” with a break-up and breakthrough sophomore LP “Make a Shrine or Burn It” – a masterclass in self-reflection and female autonomy. Produced herself, the album finds the singer/songwriter folding her oceanic, nap rock sound into the musical kaleidoscope of Laurel Canyon folk-pop and floaty, improvisational psychedelia; inviting the listener into the complex yet controlled chaos of it all.
An album of lingering farewells and cautiously optimistic beginnings punctuated by a deceptive wit, Lightbody – a.k.a. Vivian McConnell – turns her attention inward, exploring what it means to be with yourself after being with another; trading abstract, third-party narratives for those more poignant and conversational. With the June 2019 release of lead single “Car Alarm,” a siren song jokingly prophesizing death and legacy under the guise of horniness, it was apparent that McConnell was in the midst of transformation. Her lower register taking on a smoky, growl-like quality, she sounded ready to pounce; her warbly guitar swirling into a slick, bluesy solo as opposed to more languid, previous singles. “I wasn’t necessarily trying to be comedic, but more direct…and being direct can highlight the funny bits of life in a way,” she says of her approach to composing the album. “I was tired of writing in metaphors and wanted to be more blunt, and people seem to be connecting to the lyrics more. This also fell in line with not taking myself so seriously all the time. ‘Car Alarm’ is on the extreme side of that where I’m almost making fun of myself.”
Though she’s been known to wade in melancholic waters, tracks like the swagger-exuding, hooky standout “Horse on Fire” – a post-split warning simmering with sensuality – and sarcastic framing of longing for domesticity with a partner on “Split the Rent” nod toward a matured confidence and understanding. Apparent from album opener “If it’s Not Me,” a song not so much for an ex-boyfriend, but his next partner, she sings of a new standard: “I never want to hate another woman, just because she’s out there livin.’”
“‘If it’s Not Me’ was the last song I wrote for this record and in a way, it does sort of act as a thesis; ‘here are some things that I learned and here are 8 more songs that helped me get to this point,’” McConnell says. “The song would have been great as a closer, but it was too much of a slammer to put last.”
Recorded at noted Chicago recording studios including Decade Studios, Public House and Pallet Sound, as well as in her own bedroom (extremely true to form), McConnell produced the album herself and teamed up with the city’s go-to engineer Dave Vettraino (Lala Lala, Makaya McCraven, Deeper, Melkbelly). Building upon lush harmonies and textured rhythms – featuring Ohmme’s Sima Cunningham on vocals and Macie Stewart on violin, and saxman Wills Mckenna among others – “Make a Shrine or Burn It” is an adventurous uptick in the dreamy, signature V.V. Lightbody soundscape.
Her woozy romanticism a bit rougher around the edges, she’s found a new freedom in impermanence, lessons in mistakes and power in not making the same ones twice. With the climactic exhale “Offers,” she delivers a sweeping admonishment of gendered expectations and contortion of the female form. Culminating in the shadowy, stripped, cliff-hanger closer “USPS” – she dares to ask the question she can only hope to receive an answer to. At its end, “Make a Shrine or Burn It” soundtracks a journey of accepting where one chapter ends, and another begins – whether one’s ready or not.