Shoegaze is music of disconnected bliss and languor for hipsters who want to leave their bodies behind in the rush of noise. A largely funkless business, classic shoegaze was mostly played by white guys floating free of political or semantic meaning, as singers mumbled through indecipherable lyrics. Listening to My Bloody Valentine or Ride is about losing, not examining, yourself.
Sheetal Singh, aka Forest Bees, is determined to give that shoegaze transcendence some consciousness, self- and otherwise. Singh was the bassist for the San Francisco shoegaze almost-weres the Stratford 4 in the late-1990s, before label trouble broke the band apart. After extricating herself from the rubble, Singh gave up music for a while. She went to graduate school, had a family, raised her children.
Her return to music was Forest Bees, an album that has that shoegaze sound, but wrapped around a series of left turns. The lyrics are incessantly about bodies. Singh sings about raising an Asian daughter who struggles with self-image, about relationships fraying with age. “Hollow Bones,” the album’s remarkable standout, is a dragging, broken song about postpartum depression in which the shoegaze buzz and shimmer feels like walls closing in rather than opening up.
Singh’s follow-up, Between the Lines: Stories and Sounds of a South Asian American Life, released earlier this year, goes even further down the anti-shoegaze path. It opens with an unmistakably Bollywood beat, and South Asian melodies wrap around the delicately tidal production. The album’s caught between evaporating into the cosmos and shaking its butt closer to home, with Singh’s sweet, intimate vocals evoking celestial space even as they get mired in the inevitable pain and muck of being a particular person in a particular place with a particular gender and history.
“Someone Else” is a brutal breakup song buried under layers of swooning romanticism. The beautiful squall frames bitter country weeper lines like “You’ve come alive because of someone else.” It’s like a desecration; shoegaze’s promise of ecstasy turned inward to eat itself.
“America” maps those stylistic contrasts directly onto the experience of diaspora. Singh’s voice deliberately imitates the smoothly melodic tergiversations of singers like Asha Bhosle as she demands (in a very Bollywood lyric) “Love me love me say you love me/make me feel I’m finally home.” She’s not (just) talking to a prospective romantic interest, though, but to her country. “You broke your promise/you broke my heart/you broke your promise/you broke me apart.”
People of color and children of immigrants can see they’re less and less welcome in an America that’s willing to elevate Trump. But the music of despair is a kind of hope. Singh’s seamless fusing of her musical loves—she makes it sound like Bollywood is one of shoegaze’s primary influences, or vice versa—enacts the happily-ever-after that America refuses, or doesn’t deserve.
Similarly in “The Wolf in the Fable,” Singh whispers, “This year has broken me/But its set me free.” The track has an urgent, ominous beat, with hints of harsh feedback; it blurs the line between shoegaze and goth, reveling in its own bleakness as a kind of rebuke to those boring souls who smile and smile and don’t get broken. “I’m crawling in my skin/There’s no escape,” is a horror story. But it’s also a triumph. Shoegaze, or America may say you’re not right, but you’re still in the self you’re in. No one can change that.
The last track on the album is the Stratford 4’s “All That Damage.” The original version featured Singh duetting with Chris Streng for the first part; she eventually drops out leaving him to finish it up with indie boy angst and guitar grit. Singh’s version features her from start to finish, and adds those Bollywood beats. The damage here is less romanticized. “Maybe I fell from grace/the minute that I saw your face,” means something different from 20 years down the road. Singh isn’t an artist looking for salvation.