Christian Kiefer’s The Heart of It All is a powerful, moving, and necessary novel that captures modern America in its small town life.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“Recalls Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool…Kiefer has a sympathetic and probing eye that gives his characters solidity, kindling empathy and anxiety…A thoughtful look at those just getting by from a writer who deserves to be known.”
I well know that these soundtracks are generally offered on a track-by-track basis, with analysis and justifications sprinkled in, but alas in this case I’ll be going a bit off the rails as one of my “tracks” is, necessarily a whole album.
1. Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co. Jason Molina was a distant friend and I miss him terribly. The bottle got its glassy hands around his heart and he was unable to pull himself back from the edge of that well. He made a bunch of great, great records, the best of which is this one. I think he might have agreed, since he changed the name of his musical project to Magnolia Electric Co. afterwards, this album becoming the blueprint for his artistic endeavors moving forward. What you get on this album is what I always wanted Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town to sound like: a certain plaintive wailing marked by solid forward momentum. Jason talks a lot about wanting to change, often failing, often hiding himself from the people he loves. The album starts with this: “It’s been hard doing anything. Winter’s stuck around so long.” Man yeah it has. That’s what the whole book is about.
2. Khanate, “Release.” “Fail. Trying is not enough.” So starts side B of Khanate’s 2005 album Capture & Release. Khanate is something of a supergroup but is also the proponent of a particular variety of deeply anti-social minimalist metal the likes of which is unsettling and thrilling. Alan Dubin’s vocals are like the screeching of the heart itself. My God. One of the characters in the novel is a fan of some pretty deep metal and this track was on heavy repeat between writing sessions. There’s a truth here that speaks to some of the hardest moments in our lives.
3. Sunn O))), Life Metal. Again, an entire album, for which the reader must forgive me. This is Sunn O)))’s 8th album and here they’ve gone all the way back to their essential dronescape: huge chords that sustain forever, unfading, unflagging. It’s a lot but also represents the most basic form of music, the titanic and holy om that is the sound of the universe itself. It’s good writing music, by the way, but also is a kind of slab that reduces experience to its least complex form. There’s truth to that. Stephen O’Malley is the link between Khanate and Sunn O))), by the way; he’s in both bands. It’s fun for me to imagine what people are listening to when they pass me by on the sidewalk. Could be they’re all listening to Taylor Swift, but I think some of them are listening to Stockhausen or Sunn O))) or Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine.
4. Siavash Amini, “The Fog.” I’ve been a fan of Amini’s for a long while and am particularly a fan of this kind of scooped out frequency wash. Reminds me a little of Tim Hecker’s best record, Ravedeath, 1972, in its attention to specific tonal information held within a matrix that both is and is not disintegrating across time. This kind of thing is the soundtrack to much of what I write. In many ways that Songs: Ohia record I started with is the heart and soul of this novel but I actually wrote it to Amini and Sunn O))) and Wulven. These guys are creating musics that are the sonic equivalent of Rothko: experience brought to its fundamental tone which is simultaneously (and deceptively) complex.
5. Wulven, “Night.” Wulven is an ambient (mostly) doomgaze project out of Nashville. There’s a certain hollow frozen quality to this track that speaks to me of some of the wintering spaces in Ohio, where the book takes place. Winter has always felt like a clarifying time for me and Wulven seems to get that. There’s also a sense of desperation and pain here, but it’s simultaneously very beautiful. I think that’s what I was looking for in The Heart of It All. Life is hard but maybe, if we listen with attention, we can find that faint melody of hope. The album “Night” comes from is called They Are Never Coming Back, but with Wulven I don’t necessarily think that sentiment is meant as a bad thing. Here we are and we endure.
6. Songs: Ohia, “The Big Game Is Every Night.” OK so I”m back on my Jason Molina bullshit here. This track was recorded for the Magnolia Electric Co. album but didn’t actually make it into the world until the deluxe release of that record a few years back. In some ways this is my favorite track from those sessions, a beautifully solid, mid tempo heavy almost-ballad that seems to encapsulate the entirety of Ohio. This is the heart and soul of everything I tried to write about in The Heart of It All.
also at Largehearted Boy:
Christian Kiefer has a PhD in American literature from the University of California–Davis and directs the low-residency MFA at Ashland University. He is the author of three novels: The Infinite Tides, The Animals, and most recently Phantoms which was one of Kirkus Reviews and BBC’s Best Books of 2019. He lives with his family in Placer County, California.