Take a moment to picture a perfect version of yourself. Is it who your parents, friends, or the rest of society want you to be? Is it who you wish you were? Is it you in your current state (if so, jealous)?
Perfection itself is overrated and unattainable, a concept that exists in our heads to make us feel guilty that we don’t get enough sleep or read enough classic novels or spend enough time with friends. Even if flawlessness weren’t impossible to begin with, the pursuit of it is inevitably destined for disappointment rather than fulfillment.
It was this path Julia Shapiro—the frontwoman for sad rock outfit Chastity Belt and a member of Seattle indie supergroups CHILDBIRTH and Who Is She?—found herself straying from just before crafting her debut solo effort Perfect Version for Hardly Art. She had gone through a serious breakup, was struggling with health issues and found the prospect of performing again unthinkable.
Asking herself those aforementioned intimate and uncomfortable questions, Shapiro created perhaps her most introspective work to date, rivaling the brooding Chastity Belt LP I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone. Perfect Version’s opener, “Natural,” sounds like something Snail Mail might put out a decade from now, contemplating self-confidence rather than unrequited longing. Shapiro’s reverb-laden vocals are mournful over comparatively sunny guitar riffs, even as she’s imagining what it would be like to live in the woods and “be my own best friend.” The lush sadness of “Natural” sits diametrically opposed to “Shape,” which ricochets in an isolating sonic scope. It’s the closest thing to a love song on the album (next to “Parking Lot,” which contemplates being “together alone” with a friend), but ultimately rejects romance. Being one half of a couple makes Shapiro feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. “Deep down I know / I’d rather be alone / I can’t fit into that shape,” she admits before the song crescendos into gorgeous tremolo.
Conventional love stories are not why you seek out Shapiro’s music, though. Her voice has often been one of hilarious, barbed criticism, whether on CHILDBIRTH’s “Breast Coast,” poking fun at Best Coast’s heteronormative hymns, or sarcastically singing that “Your tattoos are so deep / They really make me think” on Chastity Belt’s “Seattle Party.” Though she now turns that critical eye inward, she’s thankfully quite gentle with herself. She laments wasted summers of the past on “A Couple Highs,” but realizes that going back wouldn’t make things better because she used to be so insecure. The lines drip with regret, but Shapiro’s vocals are so listless that you have to wonder if she really cares at all. On “I Lied,” she chides herself once more, singing, “I should really be more present / I should go to bed at a reasonable hour.” At the same time, she asks wryly, “But what’s the fun in that?”
Tracks like “Natural” and “Around the Block” are lethargically catchy, but few songs actively try to grab you with a hook, a refreshing move in the days of Spotify-catering singles. Shapiro really stretched herself on the album, recording nearly every instrument herself in her bedroom, with the exception of the mouth trumpet and violin portions. Her songwriting results in melodies both beautiful and iterative, such as that of “Harder to Do.” Shapiro’s vocals are more distant here than on possibly any other track, nearly overpowered by heavy waves of guitar. Her voice echoes and works its way through the cloud of feedback, like rays of sunshine poking through a stormy sky, as she describes that all-too-familiar mental inertia that comes with depression. It’s a song made to be played while looking through a rain-streaked window.
While Shapiro realizes she’s spent much of her time trying to become a perfect version of herself, in the end it seems she finds that the most enjoyable moments in life are spent “falling on my ass again” and laughing at her mistakes with friends (same, Julia). The notion of perfection is wiped away, replaced in “Empty Cup” with something more grounding: “a lasting sense of self.”