For some, the “cabin in the woods” album aesthetic reached critical mass in 2011, with a headline in the Onion: “Man Just Going To Grab Guitar And Old Four-Track, Go Out To Cabin In Woods, Make Shittiest Album Anyone’s Ever Heard.” For others, it arrived in the form of Taylor Swift’s Folklore LP this July: an album so deliberately homespun in its marketing, it could only have been made more cottagecore if some bright spark had added the whiff of a wood-burning stove to the packaging. Suddenly, the musical mythology around albums recorded in isolation had become mainstream and stripped them of the very thing that made them interesting in the first place.
But then, in October, came Adrianne Lenker’s Songs. The Big Thief singer made the analogue recordings while holed up in a forest in Massachusetts during lockdown, as a way of working through the grief of heartbreak, and it is a record of such genuine intimacy it almost feels like walking in on someone else’s kiss or bath-cry.
The record evokes a similar mood to Bon Iver’s 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago – recorded alone and heartsick in a cabin in Wisconsin – which kicked off indie rock’s preoccupation with the sad, rural record. (In true 2020 “Wait, what?” style, Justin Vernon guested on Swift’s Folklore, recorded mainly in LA, not in a field.)
But the story of the isolation album stretches back to the very first records, close to a century ago. The haunting Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson was cut in 1936 in the blues singer’s hotel room in San Antonio, two years before his death aged 27. Or how about Daniel Johnston’s Songs of Pain cassette album, recorded in his parents’ basement in West Virginia in 1981?
Perhaps the most feted isolation album is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, recorded at his home on a humble four-track over the course of three days in 1982. At this point, the Boss was riding high on the success of such dazzling, exuberant albums as Born to Run and The River. But Nebraska’s songs deal in blue-collar failure and redemption in the quietest terms; this, really, is dancing in the dark.
The common thread that connects these outstanding records is not that they were all recorded in a rural cabin (they weren’t). They are distinctly solo events, made without distraction and in private. There is an intense vulnerability that can emerge when we’re truly alone, with no one to perform to; an intimacy that allows the artist to connect with the listener in a very personal way. In the Before Times, there was a certain pleasure to listening to lonesome songs on headphones on a crowded bus. But now that the pandemic has isolated so many of us, such records have the space to really breathe at last.