BY ANNA SZILAGYI
There is something enthralling about a song that deceives you. A first listen can prompt upbeat head-bobbing in the car or prancing around your room, but on a second or third reflection, you detect a sadness, fear, or anxiety in the lyrics that wasn’t apparent at first. This was my experience listening to YOUNG, Overcoats’ debut album. Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell, the two members of Overcoats, create stunning, dance-y electro-pop, and their vocal harmonies construct haunting, spell-like songs. It’s easy to find yourself in the midst of a solo car dance party with Overcoats blasting, and it’s both strange and comforting to notice how dark the lyrics are, expertly draped over energetic instrumentals. Many of Overcoats' lyrics describe unhealthy relationships, and the language reflects how those relationships can manifest: in subtle, slowly building ways.
"Smaller Than My Mother" was the first song on YOUNG that prompted a jarring, "yes, this is my experience, too," while I gripped the steering wheel of my car. Elion and Mitchell sing of an imbalanced relationship dynamic: "I keep on shrinking, but he stays the same," repeating the same line immediately after, just to ensure it sinks in. In so few syllables, Elion and Mitchell describe a phenomenon that women often experience around men, the turning inward of both our emotions and our bodies to make space for them, or to make sure we aren’t imposing on their voices and bodies. When I found myself in an unhealthy relationship in college, I didn’t recognize in the moment that I was walking, talking, and feeling on eggshells, carefully choosing my words so as to not provoke my partner. I say "found myself" deliberately, too—it wasn’t clear until so many months later what I can see with more objective eyes now, that I was putting my feelings second in order to hold more of my significant other’s.
This line reminded me of the spoken word poem "Shrinking Women" by Lily Myers, in which Myers dissects the same "shrinking" phenomenon, examining the habits passed down to her by the women in her family. While her father and brother are encouraged to grow both physically and mentally, Myers notes that "[she has] been taught to grow in." That tendency inward is reflected throughout YOUNG. The song’s title, as well as the lyric it comes from—"smaller than my mother, / he looks down on me"—acknowledges the inheritance element as well. Elion and Mitchell’s sharp observations show a keen introspectiveness born from harnessing that tendency inward and confronting these dynamics.
Overcoats’ full, dance-y songs are composed of handfuls of lines, and the sparseness of the lyrics is what makes them so powerful. "Leave the Light On" is certainly the danciest track of all, composed of fragments declaring independence and self-reliance. "Leave the light on / for myself when I come home" becomes an empowering mantra, embracing the relationship with oneself, while the speaker addresses a partner, telling them, "You don’t know me / at all." In Overcoats’ NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, Elion and Mitchell throw themselves into their signature choreography while performing this song, and their joy and friendship are tangible. The tone of this track took me back to the way I felt after ending my relationship, relieved and sad at the same time, getting used to only considering myself for the foreseeable future.
I had never heard my experience represented in song lyrics so precisely before YOUNG. Artists representing unhealthy or abusive relationships open windows to the range of ways people experience these relationships. In "23," the lyric, "...and the only truth that I can see / is he’s the only one who knows how to love me" embodies one way I rationalized staying with a significant other who made me feel small. We know each other so well, and we have something no one else has, so staying together must make sense, I thought. "Honey you’re a full-time job, / and I’m tired of rescuing you" was my guiltiest thought. I couldn’t admit that my relationship was more taxing than it was fulfilling, even though subconsciously, I knew that was a deal breaker.
In "The Fog," the chorus rings, "Freedom is when I'm without you, / when the fog lifts, I'm the only one I see." Through repetition, Overcoats' words affirm listeners’ experiences of manipulation or abuse and welcome even the newest fans to sing along right away and feel validated. Even three years after my relationship ended, waves of familiarity flooded my chest listening to this song. Singing in the car to these lines felt exhilarating. It still does—it feels like building a relationship with yourself and not feeling guilty, caring for yourself like you would a romantic partner. Elion and Mitchell confront abusive behavior head on in the verses: "He yanks me like he can move me / don't he think I have my own needs?" and "Talks me down till I'm sitting silent, / wants me to ask before I speak." While the words are intense, it’s vital to write through behavior that’s so often hidden and speak or sing the truth into art.
YOUNG was released in April of 2017, and though a friend only recommended it to me in June, it’s been repeated on my Spotify countless times. Looking for more Overcoats in my life, I watched the duo’s Audiotree session and grew even more enthusiastic about their music. In between songs, Elion and Mitchell are vocal about intersectional feminism, their friendship, and their goals as a band. In each live session I watched, they embraced throughout the set, grinning. Their commitment to each other vibrates through their songs, proving how essential a connection is within music: between car speakers and vocal chords, between friends’ arms, and between words and experience.
Anna Szilagyi is an editor by trade and a recent graduate of Binghamton University, where she studied English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her work has appeared in Spy Kids Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Refresh, and elsewhere. She uses her lipstick as a mood ring and spends her train commutes buried in feminist fiction and poetry. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @anna_szil and can read more of her work at annaszilagyi.wordpress.com.