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TRACK MARKS 2020: “Animal” by Katie Malco

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

In August 2020, I made a promise to myself: I would stop drinking for at least 90 days. It was one of those tests that people who suspect they might have a problem give themselves in the months, or years, before they decide to quit something for good. I made it, and then some, and while I have had a glass of wine at a holiday dinner here and there since, for the most part I’ve cut alcohol out of my life. The decision was and wasn’t related to the pandemic, which forced many of us to confront habits and tendencies that we otherwise might have been happy to avoid indefinitely. In truth it was a long time coming, longer than many of the people close to me probably realized. It also had some inevitable consequences, some of which I expected and some of which were a surprise. For example, I started noticing in ways I hadn’t before how people imbibed, casually or otherwise, in the pop culture I consumed — how the placement of a bottle in a frame can indicate either a detail or a problem, or how the intentions of a song lyric can be twisted depending on our knowledge of the singer’s life.

A lot of artists were confronting addiction issues in 2020, particularly women. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud explored the often uncomfortable contours of recovery, as did Best Coast’s Everything Has Changed. While the U.K.-based Katie Malco’s debut solo album Failures has the sort of title that connotes struggles with a substance, it’s not explicitly about that. Alcohol is just one of the many coping mechanisms for modern life that are explored with unflinching honesty here. “Animal” is the bracing opening track; after the first fifteen seconds of plaintively searching piano it drops listeners in media res with Malco heedlessly powering her way through an all-night bender: “Thirteen beers and a bad taste in my mouth” are the first words we hear. It mimics the textures of binge drinking in both its lyrics and composition, with guitars that veer from chugging along like the train the singer has found herself on to the jagged shards of memory in the morning-after. According to Malco, “Animal” is based on nights when she stayed out to avoid being at home with her mother’s abusive partner. She cycles through the same story in both verses, not unlike how someone who’s suffered a blackout tries to piece back together what they might have done. It’s strung together with a chorus both defiant and defenseless, with Malco sounding like she can barely catch her breath, raging one moment for the listener to “take those worried eyes off me” and pleading with childlike vulnerability to be carried home in the next. I wish I didn’t recognize myself in those words, but Malco is not judgmental of her younger self, only of those who might judge her. Like many a drunk, the song relents eventually, tapering off with a churning coda like the singer has finally laid down, head heavy with a case of the bends that might never stop.

Looking back now, Malco’s potential breakout year feels more like a dream deferred. Though she’s been the opening act for artists like Jenny Lewis and Julien Baker, missing out on a headlining tour has to hurt, and it means a lot of music fans were deprived of a potential new favorite. I look forward to when concert venues open up again, and hope Malco has the chance to do some gigs in the U.S.; in the meantime, her album is available on Bandcamp.