“What Is Instead?”: Blue Hawaii’s Untogether, Five Years On

At first glance, the cover art for Blue Hawaii’s sophomore album, Untogether, acts as an obvious metaphor for codependence. On it, members Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Alex “Agor” Cowan embrace as ghostly figures, their bodies literally sinking into one another. The dissolution is subtly one-sided, however. Cowan remains solid, while Standell is transparent, the edges of her blurring into his. It is the nature—and subsequent fallout—of this boundary-less, imbalanced intimacy that lends the album such lasting impact.

Strangely, the physical proximity of the album’s artwork acts in direct contrast to the circumstances of its creation. Then a couple, Standell and Cowan recorded separately, alternating solitary work on the album, rarely seeing each other during what would become the final year of their relationship. By Untogether’s release, the pair had split, leaving behind a roadmap of the nebulous territory that arises between emotional proximity and physical separation. Amidst its meditations on codependence, sexuality, and self-doubt, the album’s most fascinating thematic strain is the way in which Standell articulates the engrained behaviours that lead to the inequity depicted on its cover.

From a very young age, women are conditioned to see romantic compatibility as the ultimate measure of self-worth. In the historically omnipresent Disney princess trope, the heroine’s crowning achievement is marriage to her prince, and this notion of unwavering commitment centered around the construct of “true love” inevitably becomes the metric through which young women come to judge the success of their relationships. It’s an enormously patriarchal and restrictive narrative, and while one might prefer to think of these ideals as the territory of naïve little girls, they’re so aggressively driven into children that women often struggle to dismantle internalized notions of romantic value well into adulthood.

It is this struggle that Standell so often finds herself caught in throughout Untogether. By 2013, she had already established herself as one of Canada’s leading songwriting talents through her work with Braids, and here, her plainspoken lyricism deftly articulates the feeling of being trapped between the need for self-preservation and the comforts of being desired. On centerpiece “Yours to Keep,” she alternates between statements of devotion and uncertainty, calmly declaring, “can’t say I like this.” With the line “staying is a choice,” she remains aware of her agency, yet not quite willing to act upon it. That Standell is able to allow such paradoxical nuance to exist in a digestible form is a measure of her extraordinary perceptive ability.

The self-awareness exhibited on moments such as “Yours to Keep” plays a major role in Untogether’s resonance. Standell’s state of mind is one familiar to almost anyone who has found themselves in a codependent relationship. Talk of patriarchy and toxic narratives aside, sometimes being loved just plain feels nice, and it’s difficult to reconcile that immediate comfort with the knowledge that it stems from an emotionally unhealthy place. Standell’s vocal talents reaffirm this point on the chorus of the tranquil “Try To Be.” When she sings “may as well just be me,” whether she is saying it with a sense of resignation or empowerment is strikingly unclear.

“Try To Be” also acts as a skeleton key to what appears to be Standell’s own internalized notions of self-worth, stating, “felt like as a young girl/I barely knew what was happening/what I want to be, what I want to be.” At the song’s climax, she lays the nature of her feelings bare: “All I wanted/was a need to be wanted.” Admissions like this populate much of the album, standing as acts of immense vulnerability.

In a society where women are still expected to be single-minded and unwavering in their interpersonal relationships, expressions of doubt and fallibility are hugely valuable. On “Sweet Tooth,” the album’s ode to unsatisfying intimacy, Standell admits, “I’m still learning about my tastes,” and in a rare instance of boundary-setting states that “true O’s can only ever be achieved through love.” On an aesthetically delicate pop album, this emotional bluntness is stunning.

With the knowledge that Untogether’s creative process culminated in the end of Standell and Cowan’s relationship, it’s difficult not to apply that narrative to the album’s overall progression. While an emotional trajectory does take place, it’s less a step-by-step dissection of a break-up as opposed to a vague passage through the emotional states that occur leading up to one. Standell’s conflicted desires gradually build into a state of disconnect and dissatisfaction, which progresses alongside a unique instrumental parallel.

bluehawaii_photoMarilisCardinal_highres
Blue Hawaii by Marilis Cardinal

Throughout the album, Cowan—primarily on instrumental/production duties—makes extensive use of Standell’s own resampled voice. At times, her scrambled, pitch-shifted vocals form the bulk of Untogether’s melodic instrumentation. Over the course of the record, a duality begins to appear between Standell’s unedited singing and Cowan’s subsequent alterations, forming a kind of symbolic push-pull. There are her emotions, and the way in which he reconstructs them through his own lens.

Eventually, a clear shift takes place towards the album’s latter third. Where Standell’s voice initially carries through unimpeded, on “Flammarion,” Cowan’s unintelligible distortion form the sole vocal content, distorting her perspective beyond recognition. In line with this, Standell’s lyrics become increasingly defeated. “Sierra Lift,” the album’s most instrumentally spirited moment, finds her apathetically asking, “someone come and lift me out of here/I just want to go to sleep.” By “Daisy,” matters turn for the worse, her only intelligible words being “I’ve been caught in a mess.” Throughout, it sounds as if Cowan’s prismatic samples are what is keeping her there.

In line with its characteristic emotional ambiguity, Untogether concludes neither with a climax or resolution, but a small-yet-powerful piece of attrition. On closer “The Other Day,” Standell finally gives herself a piece of hopeful reassurance: “Don’t give up now/and wait/there’s so much time for your life.” Coming on the heels of an album rife with self-doubt, it is a touching moment of care. Still, it is laced with the pain that such hard-earned act of self-actualization brings. In the tracks last moments, Standell sings, “The other day/I had the beautiful thought/‘What if I didn’t really care at all?’” True to form, the duo end the album with a mixture of empowerment and sadness, letting the two combine into something far more powerful.

As a collection, Untogether stands as an important embodiment of the trials of modern romance. At a time where the boundaries set by society’s preconceived notions of love and sexuality are beginning to erode, the album manages to express the muddy emotional waters left behind in the aftermath. Most importantly, Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s lyrics encapsulate the ways in which the social pressures created by those long-held ideals affect how women perceive and maintain relationships. She not only charts the origin of that experience, but offers a crucial vision for how we might be able to challenge and overcome the internalized beliefs that so often hamper the existence of emotionally healthy dynamics. As the present-day social landscape becomes ever more fluid and uncertain, Untogether offers an enduring sense of how to find oneself in the murk.

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