In the tradition of the great 20th century epics such as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Quadrophenia, Lainey Schooltree and her band set out to tell a modern story of self actualization and personal discovery, with a contemporary touch. Enter Heterotopia, the story of a young, disillusioned artist named Suzi, who unwittingly begins a surreal, metaphysical hero’s journey after chasing a cat centipede down a manhole. Conceptually and musically, Heterotopia is an amalgam of classical and contemporary influences, drawing ideas from philosophers and intellectuals (The title, Heterotopia, refers to Michel Focault’s concept of the same name) as well as rock and roll artists such as Genesis, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Queens of the Stone Age, and The Who.
Compared to Rael’s bizarre and occasionally meandering adventures in The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (he meets death personified, has strange erotic encounters with freaky, floating snake women, has his testicles stolen by a bird, etc.), or Ziggy Stardust’s messianic space mission, Suzi’s quest to find herself is straightforward. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t carry an equal amount of metaphysical and conceptual weight. The more I get into this album, the more those sources reveal themselves to me. While an understanding of philosophy/Jungian psychology is not a requirement for enjoying the album, it does enrich the listening to know some of the basic concepts (Google/Wikipedia never made an expert out of anyone, but they did get an entire generation through college).
Here’s the story in a nutshell: Suzi, who is sick of having a soul in a world that doesn’t appreciate it, wishes it away. As she wanders city streets late at night, she comes across a cat with hundreds of legs that, like Alice’s white rabbit, guides her down a manhole into the abyss. When she wakes up, she finds that her body and soul have, in fact, been separated, and she is stuck in a purgatory of sorts, where she sees a frightening, distorted mirror world (like the Upside Down from Stranger Things, but without the throbbing electronica). As Suzi wanders in this liminal space, which reflects both her previous reality and her present, surrealistic reality simultaneously, she is visited by Metanoia, a leitmaiden (“guiding maid”), who tells her the history of this plane of existence (referred to in the booklet as “the garden of the archetype”- possibly referring to Plato as well as Carl Jung), as well as how she can restore balance and be reunited with her body- by awakening the slumbering leitmaiden Enantiodromia (which is a reference to a Jungian term that describes relationships between opposing forces).
It’s great when a prog artist ambitiously writes a massive, sprawling philosophical musical treatise, because I think we, as a society, should reward ambition, but ultimately, with music, you can only go so far with ambition alone. The quality of an album boils down to whether or not the songs on the album are catchy and memorable and relatable (Yes, the same general rules of good songwriting apply for progressive music). And Heterotopia has numerous songs that just have great, hummable melodies (though my strained falsetto and then frustrated-octave lower humming does them no justice), and each time I listen to the album in full, I find a new song that I really like.
“The Big Slide” was the first song I fell in love with, as Suzi talks about her broken dreams and failed expectations. As an oft-existential and world weary person myself, I relate a lot with those concepts, as do many in my generation. There are numerous tracks on the album that would do well as singles, such as the Floydian trance of “The Abyss”, or the “Duke”-esque chord changes and driving backbeat of “The Radio”, or the straightforward “Dead Girl”, though, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the words might be weird out of narrative context. But I don’t really feel like there are any major dips in songwriting quality throughout the album- all of the songs are funny and charming and engaging and sad throughout. If there is a moment that is more subdued, it still propels the narrative forward.
Like any great album, it took a while for me to digest. Rock operas aren’t usually things you can fully appreciate if you’re only passively listening, so I had to find time to listen and give the album the attention it deserves. However, with each subsequent listen, I fell more and more in love with Schooltree’s story, and was better able to understand how each song contributed to the overall narrative. Heterotopia is a perfect blend of the humor and narrative strength of Kevin Gilbert’s underrated rock opera, The Shaming of the True, the conceptual depth and melodicism of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and the elegance of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.
Schooltree struck the perfect balance with Heterotopia. There are highly technical passages on this album, but none of them are so complex that they take away from the narrative or seem superfluous. The more dense, philosophical concepts are introduced in a way that doesn’t immediately confuse the listener or come across as overly pretentious. And, for any of us who have ever dealt with disappointment, loss, grief, sadness, or existential confusion (that should cover everyone), you should be able to see yourself in Suzi’s quest for self actualization. Heterotopia is a terrific album that is worth the attention of any fan of ambitious and thoughtful music, and I promise that it will continue to reveal itself with subsequent listens, as it has for me.