“You didn’t think this would come out of me,” Taja Cheek sings on ‘5 to 8 Hours (WWwaG)’, a highlight from her dazzling new album as L’Rain. It’s a fitting moment of self-awareness on a record full of them, as the Brooklyn singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s music tends to swirl with surprise; even if you’re familiar with the dizzyingly intricate collages on her first two albums, particularly 2021’s Fatigue, something about I Killed Your Dog will surely catch you off guard. First, that title – four words she repeats to beguiling effect on the title track, where they float somewhere between the strange, puzzling echo of a dream and an intimate confession, carrying more than a hint of malice. It vaguely calls back to ‘Kill Self’, a track from Fatigue that opens with the line, “Reverse evolve/ Kissing my dogs/ Killing myself” – Cheek seems to confirm the connection in a shocking twist that only generates more questions, revealing, “I am your dog.” But it’s maybe the first time that the shape-shifting chaos of her compositions, and the intricate emotions that underpin them, bleeds into the actual language of her lyrics. Threaded as it may be to her earlier work (‘Knead Bee’ reimagines the main riff from ‘Need Be’), the songs here are bold in ways that feel rich, visceral, and new.
Described by Cheek as both an “anti-break up” and her “basic bitch” record, I Killed Your Dog not only owns its contradictions but pushes them outward – and also away from grief as a knotty subject of introspection, as it previously presented itself in her music. ‘I Killed Your Dog’ may not be representative of the overall mood of the album, but it suits a record that unsettles as a means of probing questions, particularly around the ways we hurt and confuse each other (and ourselves) while in love. ‘Our Funeral’ is a curious introduction, a track that mirrors the dissolution of a relationship in almost literal terms, sounding like an ominous lament until it finds a pulse – and suddenly, the line “End of days/ Are you ready?” takes on a strange glow. Similar to how L’Rain’s songs sometimes start with or resemble a conventional structure but never end in the same place, they often begin by untangling basic or complex feelings before rushing into a flurry of possibilities. After a spell-binding instrumental break in which sounds from disparate stylistic territories clash against each other, ‘Uncertainty Principle’ unwinds to find the crack where the light gets in. “It’s a new day and I will believe in something/ Maybe someday we will all believe in something,” Cheek proclaims. As if to hand in the evidence, she then relays a five-second voice message from a friend with the title ‘Oh Wow, a Bird!’.
There are moments on I Killed Your Dog that are direct in their loneliness, like ‘I Hate My Best Friends’ and ‘Clumsy’, which simmer in feelings that are less difficult to unpack. Others are palpable reminders of Cheek and her collaborators’ playfulness and sense of humour, whether it’s layered like ‘Pet Rock’ – a “morose ode to the white dad rock I never listened to,” according to Cheek – or brief like the interlude ‘What’s That Song?’, which sees the band taking a snippet from another voice message and turning it into a “real” song. But the most resonant pieces of the album are those that find Cheek meditating on the uncertainty that follows a period of intense intimacy, the air of something ending without resolution and sort of outside time. “I will dust myself off, forget you came/ Wallow in loneliness ’til I feel nothing,” she convinces herself on ‘r(EMOTE)’. By the time we reach the stunning closer ‘New Year’s UnResolution’, though, this loneliness starts to feel more complicated and maybe impossible, even if forgetting is not: “Do you know what it’s like to have something, something, something, something?/ We both know what it’s like.”
Ultimately, the most surprising and even disarming aspect of I Killed Your Dog isn’t how eerie or fierce it is, but how warm and tender; not how heady or experimental, but how gracious it is in distilling and illuminating parts of ourselves that either seem tiny and insignificant in relation to the outside world, or too big and difficult to comprehend. It’s a record you can listen to in a state of frenzy or one of wistful regret, and it melts feelings you might have experienced at different points in time into a startling half-hour experience. “What is it like to feel like you’ve forgotten a part of yourself?” Cheek wonders in a statement accompanying ‘New Year’s UnResolution’. But her new album may have you remembering things you didn’t even realize were there, looped and suddenly snapping into view.