Julia Shapiro, patron saint of the Seattle indie music scene (see: Chastity Belt, CHILDBIRTH, Who Is She?), packed her bags and moved to the sunnier climes of Los Angeles in March 2020. That same month … well, we all know what happened. Isolated and far from all that she held near and dear, Shapiro had an identity crisis that spiraled into an existential crisis, as well. “I had no friends. I was alone. I asked myself, ‘Why am I here?’ Just every day: ‘Why am I here?’” she recalls in a press release for her new solo effort, Zorked (definition of “zorked”: being in an altered state of mind, be that high, exhausted, drunk, etc.).
Her solo debut, 2019’s Perfect Version, ended with a comforting hope in the form of the notion that she had found “a lasting sense of self,” as she sang on record closer “Empty Cup.” But when writing her new record, even that had disintegrated. Like many people in the pandemic who were cut off from the activities and people that helped define their personhood, Shapiro questions who and why she is throughout her new LP.
“Death (XIII)” is a freight train of an album opener, with its chugging guitar kicking everything off with a sense of foreboding. The song is distinctly heavier and more hardcore than her previous sound—an intentional choice by Shapiro and her co-producer/roommate Melina Duterte (Jay Som). Shapiro’s voice is nearly drowned out by cascades of noise as she sings, “Holding onto something concrete / but there’s freedom in falling.” There is something freeing in being completely untethered from life as you previously knew it, she discovers: “What was once true / can now be rejected / Everything real / was just a reflection.” Shapiro’s revelations in the song are reminiscent of its titular tarot card, which, rather than being an omen of doom, can often be interpreted as a sign of new beginnings. Yes, there’s been a death, but out of burial ground, new life can grow.
This liberation and relief is short-lived, though. “Come With Me” follows, a terrifying seduction inspired by a bad mushroom trip. The song is mesmerizing and appropriately tinged with psych rock. Shapiro’s languid delivery of the line “Come with me / sink with me” is especially hypnotic. “Looking forward to my past / Sinking into what I lack,” she sings, begging the question: Who are we when we are unmoored from home and the people who know us best?
Shapiro keeps up her sonic experimentation with “Reptile! Reptile!” Tremolo pulls us in, shivering guitar over gentle strums that become a soundscape reminiscent of her home in the Pacific Northwest: contemplative and gray-hued, but certainly beautiful in its own way. Shapiro speaks, trance-like, over the instrumental, telling a bizarre story about a turtle that somehow ended up being her friend and frequent collaborator Bree McKenna, of Tacocat, CHILDBIRTH and Who Is She?.
Despite the deviations in sound (“Hellscape” and “Hall of Mirrors” are two of her softest songs to date), Shapiro’s washed-out, lackadaisical sad-rock sensibilities remain the cornerstone of her songwriting. It’s ironic that on an album all about identity crisis, Shapiro’s music is so recognizably her own. A couple tracks feel like classic Chastity Belt, “Someone” and “Do Nothing About It” in particular, until the latter descends into a fog of feedback. Her razor-sharp wit is as present as ever, too. She jokes on “Do Nothing About It” that “Some guy with a stupid face told me to smile more / Such good advice / I never thought of doing that before” after noting that she’s been “looking at the world through shit-colored glasses.” Self-examination and existentialism don’t have to be overly serious; in a press release, Shapiro remarked, “It’s funny to force people to have to say Zorked out loud. Any other title sounded pretentious.”
Shapiro doesn’t offer any easy answers once we get to the title track. She blames herself for her present state, a self-condemnation that’s hit all of us at some point: “Let’s be honest / Can we clear the air / I’m the problem / I don’t really care.” “Zorked” is a droning whirlpool of shoegaze guitar and feedback for the listener to get lost in. Amid the soupy sound, Shapiro focuses on the conflicting thoughts crowding her mind. “But I don’t wanna die,” she assures us, before describing “the need for nothingness / I don’t wanna speak anymore / I don’t wanna talk anymore.”
This album will leave you feeling zorked, and maybe that’s a good thing. Honestly, how can you trust anyone who isn’t feeling a bit out of it lately? Shapiro’s record is intensely personal, but she viscerally taps into an idea plaguing the public consciousness right now: that we aren’t alright, and maybe never will be again. Maybe that kind of despair is just part of being alive and clear-eyed in 2021.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.