In 2012, St. Paul indie-folk band Ghostmouth released a lucid seven-minute ballad entitled “Heroine.” On the song, singer Sean Chaucer Levine surrounds himself in churchy guitar lines and bright, jaunty keys.
Unlike the similarly titled Velvet Underground song, there is no ache. It’s more closely resembles a Polyphonic Spree or David Bowie tune than a melancholy Lou Reed opus, though the subject matter is exactly the same.
“Now that time is done, I've earned your love,” Levine sings as the pianos swell into a benediction, “And the atmosphere is not going anywhere at all.”
“This song is for her,” reads the epigraph.
The song is opaquely about Levine’s sister Amanda, who died in 2014 after spiraling into addiction. Amanda’s death was not a moment of defeat for Levine, though. It prompted a philosophical exploration that would result in the most ambitious art of his life, the August LP Grow.
“We were closer than anyone in [her life],” Levine says. “She was really unaccepted by everyone around her. Her teachers. Her friends. I think what would’ve done her a lot more good than rehab or jail time would be to go through an experience like this that made her realize that the way she was and all the mental illnesses they diagnosed her with, they didn’t make her any less of a person.”
The experience Levine is referring to is the total existential restoration that occurred in the months following Amanda’s death. At its heart, Grow is a postmortem for Amanda -- the “her” that “Heroine” is dedicated to -- but it is not morose or resentful. On Grow, there is no morality or judgment. There is only Levine as he navigates the vast interconnectedness of the universe and sighs in acceptance.
The album opens with a laugh. On “Spies,” Levine repeats the mantra of “We're so much more than just people when we die,” a recitation that absolves him of any guilt or anger about his sister’s passing. “Spies” is followed by the mostly instrumental “Katsu,” a song that acts as a Zen proclamation on the absurdity of death.
“I wanted to lull people into a meditative state,” Levine says of Grow. “The only real emotion I wanted to convey, other than the disintegration of your focused, rigid mind, was that heart-exploding moment of something finally taking off.”
Levine has become an adherent to the Asian schools of universality and oneness, believing that the self is an illusion that must be destroyed to attain enlightenment. He thanks his McNally Smith professor Joe Horton (of Twin Cities hip-hop group No Bird Sing) for helping open him to this emancipating philosophy. It’s allowed him to see his sister’s death as a point of progress rather than a tragedy.
“In the Western world, we think that there must be some kind of superior thing or being that created everything, whereas Asian cultures never thought that way,” Levine says ahead of Ghostmouth's early Halloween-themed show on Friday at the Eagles Club in Minneapolis. “They just think that everything grows. The universe wasn’t created, it grew. Humans aren’t created, they grow out of other humans. That’s how the universe really works.”
The composition of Grow matches the content in this way. Each song flows seamlessly and unencumbered into the next. It’s a method that Levine gleaned from the Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy as much as he did Laozi.
The constant moving energy of the record makes you lose the designation between tracks. Meanwhile, the nonstop repetition (like on “Bodies”) and melodic callbacks (like those on “Plums” and “Grow”) disorient you. Eventually, the mirage of individualism is lost completely.
“I got really into this train of thought that led me to deconstruct rigidness,” Levine says. “You know how when you use your eyes to see, you can either focus on something or you can use your peripheral vision to stare at something without trying to focus on it. You actually see better and become more aware. I tried to get my mind set like that in general, and it led to this calm.”
Grow also has no anxieties about genre. At times, it’s a Delta blues record, replete with slides and lap steel. Other times, it’s an alt-country album in the vein of Son Volt. British rock ‘n’ roll, Appalachian folk, and Pacific Northwestern indie rock appear as well. In the past, Ghostmouth has been a straight-up punk outfit, but now removed from the moors of the Western ego, Levine felt free to inhabit different genres, often in the same song.
“Influentially, I just threw everything in the pot instead of focusing on a style,” he says. “I tried to be cinematic with it. Everything was a character to me. I didn’t really care about what I was making when I was making it. It was kind of like a soundtrack to a movie that was in my head.”
While certain sounds and motifs denote certain feelings, there is not a linear narrative. “Holes” and “Grow” share a kinship that’s spoken in a wistful strum. Big swirling keys populate “Trees” the same as they do on “Bodies,” but the only person addressed is Amanda, who goes by “she” throughout -- with little to no euphemism paid to her sudden death.
That is, until the album’s lead single, “Plums,” where Levine breaks down and addresses his sister directly.
“No past, believe that I can grow without you,” he sings. “But I can't, because you're there at the start.”
Levine admits that the moment was not scripted this way. He’d made a prescription against the personal pronoun, but as he set the lyrics to record, he couldn’t help himself. Despite his efforts to see death as an indeterminate phase in the fluidity of the universe, he succumbs to the very human need for understanding.
“The album is about liberation more than revolution,” Levine says. “It’s about liberating yourself from being shackled by stress and sentimentality and depression as opposed to revolting against it, like most people try to do. But that was my one moment of sentimentality.”
With: Total Gaze, the Bad Man, Lunar Bedrooms
When: 9 p.m. Fri., Oct. 21
Where: Eagles Club 34
Tickets: $5; more info here