Black Belt Eagle Scout Traverses Difficult Emotional Terrain on 'The Land, the Water, the Sky'

BY Jordan CurriePublished Feb 7, 2023

Following her 2019 sophomore album At the Party with My Brown Friends, Katherine Paul's latest missive as Black Belt Eagle Scout — the warm and clear-eyed The Land, the Water, the Sky — finds the Washington-born songwriter on a powerful journey of healing through nature and connection to her familial and cultural roots.

Paul's new project was born out of the collective wounds and trauma the world was experiencing in 2020; that year, Paul traveled from Portland back to her birthplace in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington, looking to care for herself during this time of upheaval and fear. "When I was growing up, I didn't have very many Native role models to look to on TV or the radio," Paul said in a statement that accompanied The Land, the Water, the Sky single "Nobody." "It was within my own community that I found inspiring role models through our elders and our community leaders." The result of returning to that community is a soothing and cleansing walk through nature that you won't want to emerge from until you've had a major epiphany about your life.

Diaphanous dream pop is married with gritty shoegaze to create the concoction of sounds on The Land, the Water, the Sky, expanding on the echoing percussion, reverb-heavy guitars and soft, layered singing that have become staples in Black Belt Eagle Scout's discography. Opening track "My Blood Runs Through This Land" is a dark and fiery introduction to the album, draped in droning guitars and ghostly backing vocals. "Waking up is so violent / Wanna see the peaceful light," Paul sings, fighting through the darkness to get to the glow, guided along by the knowledge that "I know you're watching me" — an acknowledgment of the ancestors and higher powers steering her through the shadows.

The thematic focus on the therapeutic powers of the natural world, and the protective presence of familial and spiritual energies, make The Land, the Water, the Sky feel just as suited to playing from the peak of a mountain as from the crackling speaker of a bar or bookstore. Nature imagery, mythology and the dismantling of colonial violence run free throughout the tracklist. "Sedna," named after Inuit mythology's goddess of the sea, is aptly stormy and mystic, while the softly rippling guitars and soothing croon on "Salmon Stinta" may lull listeners into a dream state, but its lyrics about swimming upstream illustrate a struggle to find tranquility. The simple guitar, sweeping cinematic strings and Paul's sleepy assertion that "life is overwhelming" express the longing to escape the exhausting realities of modern life by finding salvation in the natural world.

These odes to escape are sung like love songs — and in a way, they are; powerful and heartfelt reflections on Paul's newly discovered state of mind. "I see it in my dreams / Like a whisper spoke to me / Nobody sang it for me like I wanna sing it to you," she sings on "Nobody." The lightness of the song contrasts dynamically with later tracks like "Treeline," where Paul's airy vocals are underlined with lurking, constantly plucked guitars, creating a mood of edge and eeriness. Though some of the songs are prone to blending together and sounding indistinguishable from one another at times — the one-two punch of "Understanding" and"Spaces" is the worst offender, with overly similar openings — Paul makes sure to build each respective song to strong and distinct endings.

Closing the album is "Don't Give Up," a sweet and gentle labour of love that Paul began writing two years ago in the throes of the pandemic. The billowy ballad about mental health awareness is a cathartic and spiritual ending to the album — In a statement about the record, Paul wrote that, "Spending time with the land and on the water are ways that strengthen my connection to my ancestors and to my culture. It helps heal my spirit, and is the form of self-care that helps me the most." That healing power is felt in each and every note of The Land, the Water, the Sky.
(Saddle Creek)

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