Photo by Josh Bookhalter
“This record is dedicated to decolonial activists, anti-fascist agitators, prairie queers fighting for community and a better life.” –Cassia Hardy
Survival (Mint Records), the second album by Edmonton-based Wares, deals intensely with personal trauma and vulnerability. The first track, “Hands, Skin” sees frontwoman Cassia Hardy recalling an assault and the psychological aftermath, bursting out of a hushed intro into an all-out, vengeful shout. But what makes Survival such a vital, powerhouse set is the way it celebrates the connections between people, in Hardy’s urgent lyrics and in the indie rock prosody of keyboard player Jamie McLean, bassist Mattew Gooding, and drummer Holly Greaves.
The word “survival” can connote rugged individualism; you often hear it followed by “of the fittest.” Self-empowerment is part of the equation here, but against the alienation of a hostile world rife with transphobia, Hardy makes the case that an affirming community can be a lifesaver, as in “Tether,” a triumphant coming-out story with an easy bass and drum groove, tinged with relief thanks to a trusted confidant.
Smart arrangements play into those feelings of unexpected interconnectedness–you can literally hear the record’s conceptual unity when guitar feedback from the end of “Tall Girl” fades seamlessly into the keyboards of “Living Proof.” In that track, a big-hearted synth-pop ballad, Hardy extends her own words of support, meeting gender euphoria with tenderness and encouragement.
“Surrender Into Waiting Arms” explores interpersonal connection in a sexual sense, and it captures intimacy with nuance, running through smooth buildups, breakdowns, and tempo changes from giddy, buzzing excitement to contentment and security. Meanwhile, Hardy’s straightforward word choice gets right to the heart of the thing without getting hung up on unnecessary abstractions.
It’s followed in the tracklist by “Jenny Says,” the album’s most acoustic cut and its most nitty gritty portrait of struggle, but also empathy. In an a cappella verse that’ll stop you in your tracks, Hardy cries out as the title character, in her trembling vibrato: “Why’s it hurt so much / to get out of bed sometimes? / Why do people scare me so much / I can’t ever go outside?” Hardy doesn’t have the answers, but throughout the song, her narrator is there for Jenny with a powerful physicality.
Those particular grounded moments make for Hardy’s most riveting scenes, as in “Violence,” a flashback to the high school locker room–loaded personal imagery that gestures at wider patterns of repression and the ambivalence of institutional authority. It’s a story of missed connections and obstacles to community this time, told with soft, bubbling synths to frame the memoryscape, but as Hardy looks back with recognition on the violence of her youth, she speaks into existence the possibility of a better future.
That future isn’t guaranteed, though, and the most immediate fight for survival is external to her. The album’s title track deals with the ongoing fight against the climate crisis, one where all human life is at stake as the powers that be steer us collectively to destruction. Over wistful keys and fuzzy guitar licks, Hardy delivers her most fiery vocal, and crucially, leaves the story open-ended. It’s not too late to set things right, and so she ends the album with a rallying cry, and the band sputters to a kind of chilling stop.
Survival is an album that grabs you by the shoulders–sometimes in a much-needed hug, and sometimes to shake you to attention. Though it’s subject to the same unfair power dynamics as the rest of the world, the ultimate potential of music is in the bonds between the people who make it and in the communities that form around it. Wares offer a reminder of what humanity is up against and the power of the vulnerable to help each other through.