Grief has informed many a beloved piece of music. Critics and fans alike have raved about recent albums from Mount Eerie and Nick Cave following the deaths of, respectively, a wife and a son. A full four decades before either of these artists released their grief-based works, Neil Young depicted his turmoil over two close friends’ overdoses on his 1975 classic Tonight’s the Night. Grief is so common a subject in music that to write about it, as harrowing an experience and uniting an emotion as it may be, is to risk treading down paths that other artists have already traveled.
On Loom, Katie Gately’s haunting follow-up to her playfully chaotic 2016 album Color, the electronic artist avoids this potential trap by taking a completely novel approach to documenting grief. Throughout the LP, Gately (best known for remixing Björk and co-producing serpentwithfeet) processes her mother’s ultimately fatal battle with cancer through not just her own perspective, but through narrators including the disease, its medicine and its victim. As if the angles Gately takes aren’t unorthodox enough, her bleak soundscapes eschew linear, melodic structures in favor of atmosphere, sound design and samples. The collection sounds like a deep dive into the ominous shuffling of Color’s outlier titular track, an ideal musical direction given the subject matter.
Following her mother’s death, Gately scrapped an entirely different album she was working on and began crafting “Bracer,” Loom’s crushing, contorting 11-minute centerpiece. The song starts with gong-struck ambience before inflating to an orchestra-flanked, booming section that precedes a dramatic thunderstorm of an outro. Gately’s misery grows more pervasive throughout, even though she never explicitly mentions her mother or the track’s subject matter—her dependence on whiskey during her grief—but when she wails “She wants it, she needs it, she’ll take it, she’ll steal it!” as the song enters its slamming climax, her despair sounds all-consuming. “Waltz” more overtly details her whiskey habit: “Send this dream landscape into my veins,” she begs through vocal processing that makes her sound equally like a ghost and R2D2. Terrifying choral samples and whipping, militaristic percussion buoy her chants, and as she exclaims “Lock all your cupboards, I’m here for my fix” at the song’s end, her desperation swallows her whole.
When Gately steps outside herself, she achieves Loom’s most unusual depictions of grief. “When it sees you / You’ll be lamb stew / When it feels new / You’ll be long doomed,” she sings atop the disorienting fright-fest of “Allay,” but this line isn’t her speaking to someone—it’s her mother’s cancer stating its fatality. On “Tower,” Gately does a complete 180 from “Allay” and occupies the medicine that fought her mother’s cancer. “If I could take you into my arms / I would hold you to the ground / I would hold you ‘til you drowned,” she sings in a ghastly near-falsetto over an alarming beat that stutters like a seismograph detecting a magnitude-nine earthquake. One track later, on “Flow,” Gately delivers a heart-wrenching message from her mother’s perspective. “I won’t let you hate yourself no more / I won’t let you hurt yourself no more” might have been exactly what Gately needed to hear from her mother during her grief, and the track’s apocalyptic sirens signal her mother’s inevitable passing.
Gately aptly follows these cathartic words with a closing track titled “Rest.” Now that she’s gone through hell and emerged mostly unscathed, she can finally breathe again. But she’ll never quite be complete without her mother: Although “Rest” sounds heavenly upon first listen, the eerie synths lurking at its periphery become louder with every subsequent play. Through her unusual viewpoints, Gately has accepted her mother’s absence, but another reminder of her loss is always around the corner.