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Photograph by Julia Reinhart/Redferns

Issue 119, Winter 2022

Place Embodied

The sonic landscapes of Solange's When I Get Home

A voice like God called her back into the Houston sun. Light filled a room baptized in Florida water, candles burning in the ritual of Sundays at St. John’s. Live mics anticipated hints of melody, a half hour of tape until the exact note landed, discipline manifested as epiphany. Her soprano ringing in the air, she might pause, taking in a venerated image there beside her.

Solange carried photos of cowboys into the spaces where she recorded When I Get Home, part of a mood board that guided the album’s sound. Figures in flared chaps or wide-brimmed hats, like the neighbors who would clip by Solange when she was a child in Almeda, her eyes barely level with their sleek boots. Their outlines on the horizon connected to the centuries-old tradition of African American cowboys out West, frontier rumble beneath the clap of hooves on pavement. “She didn’t say a ton about [the images],” producer John Carroll Kirby told Pitchfork, “but they were always up and it was always unspoken.”

When I Get Home revels in the land and the lore of its origins, paired with a visual adaptation—directed by Solange—that spans Texas’s country sprawl. Solange ties her own creation story to that of frontier legends, claiming herself in the acts of ode and reinvention.

The earliest country hits projected a similar mythology, with sparse production spurred on by acoustic nostalgia. Wanted! The Outlaws, released in 1976, became the first country album to go platinum, securing outlaw country’s waywardness as the genre’s “most marketable brand,” Kelefa Sanneh writes in his book Major Labels. The compilation of songs by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser leads with Jennings’s wistful “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” in which the high-riders of his youth stoop a little now, scuffed leather astride “worn-out saddles.”

A slow-rolling guitar riff evokes endless terrain, haunted by a bass line that sows isolation into the vacancy. In his own West Texas warble, Jennings mourns the promise of the frontier, dominion fully realized as spiritual displacement. Resigned to the cowboy’s special “brand of misery,” he ambles about the foundation of his own myth-making, wondering at the loose soil and cracked clay.

Where Jennings grieves barren land as the basis for life unlived, Solange sees the magnitude of home as a place of spiritual guidance. “I can’t be a singular expression of myself,” she affirms early in the album. “There’s…too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers.” This same scenery commands the visual adaptation as Marfa splays out, an Eden in green and warm umber. Heavenly tones usher in mountains obscured by mist; even when her own image is not used on screen, Solange’s voice hovers over country that articulates hidden depths, accessing manifold selves.

“Time (is)” frames a group of cowboys in easy rapture against this backdrop, men from South Texas convened by rider Gary Richard, an elder and record-setter of professional circuits. A humble rodeo arena, the only structure for miles, splits the earth like the slim distance between a garden and greater wildness. As an ivory bull charges through the chute, each man enters this careful dance: rider, fighter, witness, one dependent on the other. Their strength is self-possessed, not so much intent on taming. Their contest becomes an act of community.

An entire lifespan courses through the first notes of “Time (is),” an impression of keys sustained into holy silence. The music stretches across a vast sonic landscape as the song tracks the early stirrings of a hero’s journey, the breadth of the frontier reinterpreted here as abundance, a place of self-expansion.

Solange lingers in these moments of stillness, the kind of quiet possible beneath cumulus skies, places where stars are visible. Maybe this is the bravery of her music: to journey to the end of itself, to meet the expectation of sound with a calm too deep and full to be heard as an absence. Each note turns inward, and she invites us into the private work of introspection. A probing bass line explores some internal, edifying distance.

That emphasis on space grows as an echo effect trails her delivery and production. Solange staggers her initial no—fear of leaving a safe place for a free one—over three breaks, an internal crack registered in the shock of a round vowel. The trailing oh lands in waves, clear, convicted, collapsing, until it recedes with the quiet of the keys.

Near the end of the first verse, a determined we gotta go radiates outward, go drawn into the next line in its rebound. Onscreen, we watch with the cowboys from one side of the ring as the bull angles, hooves scraping the ground. We hear an echo and see the plains it covers, slopes in the background reflecting the sound—an interior world in aerial shots, mapped onto the geography of home in this custom of daring. The verse’s last line descends from our perspective overhead, a familiar command from the heavens, urging go.

A persistent call winds through the chorus as the song relays this final instruction, you’ve got to know, in a succession of extremes. Sampha, co-composer and co-lyricist on this track, eases into his lower register here, a slow valley beneath Solange’s steep pitch. The graded harmony, a kind of vocal relief, conjures what Audre Lorde imagined as the fullness of intimacy in Zami, “to be both man and woman…to share valleys and mountains upon my body the way the earth does in hills and peaks.” The union of pitches allows for infinite expression, the combined wisdom of the versions of ourselves we become in any journey.

When I Get Home thrives as place embodied, country landscapes carved into the wide expanse of the album’s production. Solange intones a memory, and the sound comes back as summons, past and future potential held in the echo of inherited myths. Country music’s fixed nostalgia clarifies her own effort toward wholeness, the same way that Betty Davis’s “The Lone Ranger” swells her capacity for pleasure, or how a ranchera might bask in rural views that tease eternal refuge, as in Jorge Negrete’s classic rendition of “México Lindo y Querido.” For Solange, the frontier plays host to a hero’s journey invested in growth, a catalyst for greater fulfillment. Home is sometimes the place we leave on the way back to ourselves, even as we carry its shape with us.

As Solange delivers the final refrain, a pair of cowboys races across a wide-open plain on horseback. You’ve got to know rings out from the distance, somewhere out of frame, and they ride into the horizon toward some new truth.

Noah T. Britton

Noah T. Britton is a writer from northeast Georgia based in Barcelona, Spain, where he is the assistant editor at Apartamento magazine. His work has appeared in the Oxford American and online with Little White Lies.