Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Builds a Better World on 'Theory of Ice'

BY Matt BobkinPublished Mar 9, 2021

The Earth is dying. The planet's temperature is slowly creeping upward, and age-old climate patterns are hurtling wildly out of order. And without governments willing to make radical, immediate change to regulate the multinational corporations who generate most of the world's greenhouse gasses, it's easy to imagine that the planet — and all of us who live on it — are on the way to an apocalyptic end.

But Leanne Betasamosake Simpson isn't going down without a fight. The acclaimed scholar, author and poet has devoted much of her career to utilizing Indigenous teachings in academia, and she works to incorporate many longstanding traditions and philosophies into today's colonized society, particularly those about respecting the land we live on. Theory of Ice, her third album, transposes her strong narrative voice, honed by her many acclaimed books, lectures and poems, into the core of folk-rock arrangements alternately rapturous and confrontational. Where her previous albums, 2013's Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs and 2016's f(l)ight featured, more often than not, poetry backed by music, Theory of Ice breaks down the barriers completely.

Sometimes Simpson sings, other times she reads compellingly, always immersed in the music. Joined by an all-star band composed of sister Ansley Simpson, Nick Ferrio, Jim Bryson and Jonas Bonnetta, the music of Theory of Ice morphs seamlessly between gently picked acoustic folk and roaring rock to best underpin Simpson's earnest pleas about the fate of the world. Each track is loaded with references to the many beauties of nature and the climate crisis that threatens them all; they flow together as a potent reminder of what we are on the verge of losing, but do so in a way that eschews urgency and panic in favour of sheer radiance and effusive joy. 

The staggering range is impressive; Simpson and company's ability to conjure such affect no matter the mood doubly so. "Break Up" features gently fluttering electronics recalling a frozen lake cracking under the heat of the spring thaw, leaving a pool of melted psychedelia behind. Lead single "Ok Indicts" follows a straightforward folk rock pattern that takes the point of view of the Ok Glacier in Iceland, which was declared dead in 2014 due to climate change, each scathing stanza another blow: "Skin departing bone, ice abandons snow"; "I saved your mistakes, etched them into my skin"; "Sweating bits of time, leaking pools of kind"; "Foiled by indifference, melted by greed / Please don't mourn for me."

Even during the plainest musical moments, like on funereal acoustic tracks like "Failure of Melting" and "The Wake," Simpson's words still sting. On the former, based on the true story of a lake in the Northwest Territories that fell off a cliff due to melting permafrost: "The frozen sighed and gave up / The lake wrote a letter of resignation." The latter begins by paraphrasing Gord Downie, and later features the particularly resonant lyric "I wish I'd held you when you died."

The album's massive centrepiece, a cover of Willie Dunn's "I Pity the Country" so aching and inescapable that it's practically slowcore, is towering and heartrending. Under the weight of so many factors — climate change threatening the land Indigenous people have sworn to protect; the prevailing necessity of movements such as Idle No More, the Unist'ot'en Camp and 1492 Land Back Lane; the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls epidemic; boil water advisories, public health crises and police brutality disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities — Dunn's words remain just as potent as they did upon the song's initial release in 1971, and Simpson's delivery filled with just as much fire. As they are on the rest of the album, her deliveries are matched by the band's arrangements, as a buzzing wave of guitars and crash cymbals burst forth like water from a broken dam.

Drawing on her 2020 book Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, a fictional narrative driven by Anishinaabe literary traditions (of which several poems were adapted for Theory of Ice), Simpson also effortlessly weaves times together in a matter that is not timeless, but that flatten centuries of history, where modern vices sit neatly with centuries-old rituals, furthering the album's deep, contemporary resonance. As she explains on "Viscosity" in smoky spoken word, with consonants sharp enough to pierce holes through hundreds of years of colonialism: "Tethered to the kinship of disassociated zeroes and ones / Shining your crown of neoliberal likes / Yelling the loudest in the empty room / Gathering followers like berries." But instead of opting for soapbox social media shaming, Simpson instead spends the second half of the song articulating a powerful cure, speaking in contrast to ethereal background singing: "At the beach, we build a fire / Sit in our own silence / Peel off blue light / Lie back on frozen waves." It's recalled again in closer "Head of the Lake," in which Simpson recalls a celebration with loved ones: "We made a circle and it helped / The smoke did the things we couldn't / Singing broke open hearts / I hold your hand without touching it."

The way that the album charts a path forward is perhaps its most powerful element. Where so many musical and artistic interpretations of today's precarious times and the centuries of toxic, colonial thought that led us here are filled with unending grief, sorrow and frustration, Theory of Ice is brimming with hope. The album practices what it preaches, showcasing the power of slowing down and honing in on life's tiny, beautiful details. As Simpson and John K. Samson sing in hushed unison on gorgeous duet "Surface Tension," "These are simple stolen moments / And we love when we are able."

Over eight songs and 32 minutes, Theory of Ice demolishes the lines between poetry and music, folk and rock, electric and acoustic, past and present. The album transposes Simpson's lifetime of work keeping Anishinaabe literary and ecological traditions alive into yet another powerful form. Theory of Ice is gorgeous and heartbreaking, challenging listeners' relationships with the ground they stand on and encouraging them to slow down, breathe, look, listen, learn and move forward from there.
(You've Changed Records)

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