Riding in on a fierce and defiant psychedelic stomp, “Bones” blows open Elizabeth Cook’s fifth album with a testimony to self and a declaration that the singer is moving on with her life. The song rides along a haunting guitar and vocal line, weaving beneath propulsive drums, creating a stratospheric sound that surrounds the listener with its echoes of affirmation. Cook dances out of the ashes of the moments in life and love that have burned down around her, and she carries their bones around her neck as a reminder: “I wear your bones around my neck / I am the keeper of the flame / Yes it’s true I’ve been a wreck / But I love you just the same / Tonight I’ll play another show / I’ll feel high then I’ll feel low / Then I’ll do a double-check / I wear your bones around my neck.”
The rest of Aftermath builds on the promise and never-look-back vibe of the opener. The jangly “Perfect Girls of Pop” echoes the musical restlessness and incantatory beauty of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” with much the same knowing nod at the ironies of singing sweetly while getting your “heart slammed in the door.”
The Beatles-esque “Bad Decisions” floats along Cook’s smoky vocals, etching the contours of regret for making poor choices and sketching the shapes of a life of new hope. “Daddy I Got Love for You” opens quietly with guitar and organ before Cook’s vocals soar into a tender and tough ballad that honors the power of memory to shape our lives, while the bouncy “Bayonette,” echoing Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” playfully jabs and pokes at lovers who do you wrong with its barrelhouse piano and screaming guitars: “Go dancing downtown with a can of mace / And a piñata in the shape of your face.”
On the album’s closer, Cook pays tribute to John Prine and his song “Jesus, the Missing Years.” Cook focuses her recitative on Jesus’ mother in her “Mary, the Submissing Years,” and on what Mary’s thoughts must have been raising a son like Jesus: “She knew in her gut they were coming for her child / With bumpers and thumpers and guns a-blazing / Ol’ Jesus was in for some gnarly hazing / Frat boy hazing that is, the worst kind / She thought Oh my God, what have I done / He’s a bottle of milk and all the love inside him is mine / They’re gonna kill my baby, they don’t like him none.” The song perfectly captures the hypocrisy of evangelical Christians who refuse to recognize that the president they support would be the first to nail Jesus to the cross.
Aftermath showcases the incendiary beauty of Cook’s music and lyrics and her ability to tell stories of regret and pain clutched in the velvet glove of passion and love, as well as stories of passion and love wrapped in blankets of pain.