La Force Touches Life's Brightest Spots and Darkest Corners on 'XO SKELETON'

BY Vish KhannaPublished Sep 28, 2023

On a gorgeous, compelling record that meditates on death, life, love and the endless questions they conjure, La Force's Ariel Engle creates ruminative, unclassifiable pop music as haunting as its subject matter. 

Engle is a gifted singer, songwriter and musician who lives in the Montreal home she was raised in, alongside childhood stints in China, Indonesia and Scotland. An active member of Broken Social Scene, Engle is no stranger to collaboration, having created music with her husband Andrew Whiteman as AroarA and Efrim Manuel Menuck as ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT. As a solo artist under her La Force moniker, Engle creates insular pop music fuelled by an investigative, existential passion. Her latest, the stirring XO SKELETON, is a spectral dispatch to the place beyond the veil. 

Engle claims to have long been haunted by death — its inevitability and finality, but also its uncertainty. On the earworm "how do you love a man," she calls out to her departed father, who was something of an argumentative atheist and wouldn't tolerate notions that an afterlife awaits religious devotees of any stripe. And yet, cooing lovingly with the gravitas of Sade, and a fully commitmented belief that her message will reach its destination even while admitting it likely won't, Engle presents a striking tribute to a lost parent. It's a bittersweet, deeply affecting kind of defiance.  

Familial themes recur on XO SKELETON; on "October," Engle sings, "I'll never be beyond your approval / Even now that I am beyond your gaze / You've been looking at me in the mirror / It's not fair I can't see you," and later, "People, animals, plants / Do what they do today / And again tomorrow." We see our parents and their parents in our own faces forever, and so they're never ever gone. And beyond an inevitability of death, there's also an inevitability of life — it seems to go on whether we're here or not, and whether we're grieving for what's missing or celebrating what's here, right now. 

At times, La Force might evoke Suicide, at others, Beyoncé — often on the same song. Collaborators like Plants and Animals' Warren Spicer and Shahzad Ismaily help create tense, evocative soundscapes for Engle's words to swirl above. The title track, which conveys the protective instincts that both a parent and a lover might possess (beyond being her parents' child, Engle is a mother and spouse), is pensive but completely alluring; full of vocal hooks and clever arrangements, it's a song that shows off Engle's tremendous expressiveness as a vocalist and a writer. 

By "outrun the sun," the simmering rage on XO SKELETON boils over with a lively, Tortoise-like arrangement anchoring Engle, who lets loose a screed against billionaires and wannabe astronauts, eager to flee a planet full of poor people rather than work toward fixing it. It's a furious ascension that closes a remarkable album about self-preservation and letting go, one that reveals more complex emotional layers with each listen.
(Secret City Records)

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