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The stormy romanticism that flows through the heart of Exitmusic's mesmerizing dark pop is a reflection of the intense relationship of its creative duo, Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church. They met as teenagers by chance on a train in Canada, which sparked a protracted, long-distance courtship through letters. And when Church visited Palladino in New York a few years later, he essentially moved in and never left.
While Exitmusic's records, particularly its masterful 2012 album, Passage, aren't explicitly about their lives, they aren't not about them, either. Even when tackling grandiose ideas, or brooding in despair and isolation, Palladino's blustery guitars and Church's rumbling soundscapes could stand in for their tumultuous, madly-in-love dynamic. Following Passage's release and tour, Exitmusic all but disappeared; Palladino found success as an actress, appearing in films and high-end television like Boardwalk Empire, and later, Halt and Catch Fire. Life inevitably got in the way.
Six years later, Exitmusic has resurfaced with The Recognitions, the band's long-awaited follow-up and what is likely its final album. Recorded amidst the slow dissipation of their marriage and after their separation, the album was put on the back-burner due to the fraught circumstances between the two, and it sat unfinished until Church and Palladino were emotionally ready to revisit and complete what's now a post-mortem musical statement. The nine songs unwind like a melodramatic love story pulling apart bit by bit. Told with elliptical and evocative imagery that coaxes open-ended interpretation, The Recognitions frequently alludes to straying feelings and breaches of trust, depicting two people growing apart when that initial crackle of attraction and affection dims.
The album's stirring focal point, "Iowa," recounts Palladino's existential breakthrough while on a film shoot on a lake in Iowa, an experience that made clear something had changed between them. "Where is my heart? I'm losing it," she soars, gathering courage to admit that their love has withered. "I try to say it, but I can't out loud / And your sun shines on our death, Iowa..." Later, on "I'll Never Know," she searches for identity and hints at regret: "Cast off the shadows for the colors that you'll show in time... How our soaring love crashed down I'll never know / I'll never know you."
As the daughter of a New York opera singer, Palladino projects similar bravado in her vocal range, from hushed, shuddering anguish to mysterious breathless allure to full-throated howls of anger into the night sky. And throughout most of The Recognitions, she remains confessional yet abstract. On "Closer" she sings, "Days in conversations of the time / Release me from the complication / Bring love in closer / Became unkind." On "To The Depths," her words cleave straight to bone: "Some truths are meant to let you down."
Because Palladino's viewpoint is the only one represented lyrically on The Recognitions, Church's side of the story can be gleaned from the grim yet gorgeous musical contributions. The mercurial "Crawl" picks up where Exitmusic's previous work left off, blurring its glitchy electronics and discomfiting frosty atmosphere, only to jostle you awake with scorching guitar noise. Elsewhere, he builds turbulence from a number of immersive instrumental textures: here, pitch-shifted guitar plings and distant horn melodies ("Trumpets Fade"); there, pulsating industrial beats and heavy grinding synth-bass riffs ("Criminal"). And as "Gold Coast" pares things down to a trickling cascade of harp-like arpeggios, Palladino's voice, shrouded in filtered effects, begins to resonate: "People can call me offensive because I'm alive / Pain's gonna come faster then the day's gonna die.... Cause I'm alive alive alive live," she aches.
The album closes with "The Distance," a sparse piano ballad pondering heartbreak, resignation and desire for escape – and, hopefully, renewal. "They say the body is the meeting ground / But that's the part that falls away / And separates us in time and space," she sings before trailing off with "So sail me away..."
A break-up leaves scars. Even as they fade, they serve as a reminder of who we once were and who we've become. Likewise, if The Recognitions is truly Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church's last work together as Exitmusic, it's a lasting farewell to an artistic and personal partnership.