Queen of Earth
(Available on SoundCloud)
It starts with a push. A furrowed brow or an eye roll. But then things turn aggressive, with backhanded remarks and cold shoulders and before long, that little push has become a shove, a relationship tumbling over a cliff of shame, grief, and paranoia. The downward spiral that spins Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s hauntingly opaque missive on how we always hurt the ones we love, begins with these little steps, passive-aggressive asides in the decaying friendship between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Compared with Perry’s previous venture, Listen Up, Philip, the tension at Virginia’s parents’ lake home feels downright insular and once again, Perry’s brought composer Keegan DeWitt along to bring out the worst in everybody.
DeWitt’s score for Philip was a glorious experiment in repetition and variation, culled from an hour and a half’s worth of jam sessions for a wheezy, directionless jazz quintet. As DeWitt’s admitted himself, Queen of Earth is a decidedly more focused take, true to the micro-emotional stakes between its two leads. Gone are the shambling saxophone and old-timey piani, replaced by amorphous low woodwinds, quivering voices, and most notably, a “wrenchenspiel,” DeWitt’s repurposing of hardware tools into bell percussion. DeWitt’s musical palette is distinct and cold this time around, with each instrument receiving a clear voice in the petrifying wake of Catherine’s breakup with her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley).
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A combination of flashbacks and the diegetic present day, Queen of Earth finds a loose structure in the wrenchenspiel’s announcement of each day break, earmarking another stage in Catherine’s descent away from herself. There’s a gentle curiosity to each mallet stroke in these moments of weird percussion. Its simple one-two rhythm trips over itself with an innocent hiccup, while distant cries and warbling woodwinds surround the listener in devious fashion. The momentum resumes in “Sinking” and “Visitors,” which highlight the muted qualities of their percussion while blending with flutes and clarinets in fluttering panic attacks. Here, the madness is gentle because there in no “on” switch to Moss’s bravura breakdown.
The ride is slow and subtle, with DeWitt capturing the sound of “something that is slowly dissolving.” By the time that dissolution hits Catherine and her depression explodes into paranoid delusion at a house party (“House Party”), sounds that were once curious and cute show their sinister colors. Hiccuped rhythms become scattered and sloppy, independent in their mission to unsettle and disturb, peaking with a furious swarm of high-pitched violin tremelo darting off on an impossible frenzy from the chilly pattern things began on.
But Catherine’s breakdown isn’t an isolated incident. Perry peels off the layers of Catherine and Virginia’s relationship, revealing a rotten center of iffy boyfriends and conditional shoulders to cry on. Flashbacks show a then-confident Catherine, still together with James, a young woman who seems to have “all the answers,” and this time, it’s Virginia who’s on trial. Queen of Earth‘s tragedies are cyclical, with roots tortuously unearthed by Keegan DeWitt’s steely textures. This is a sonic rediscovery of personal truths — ones perhaps best left buried.