Drawing inspiration from a Victorian-era novel, Boston-based In Ivy combine the sounds of world, folk, and rock to tell a complex story with big implications.

In an IndieGogo fundraising video posted to In Ivy’s Youtube page, frontwoman Amanda Picciche clearly states the thesis of Aphrodite, her band’s first studio album. “It’s about the idealization of the feminine identity in our culture,” she explains, “how women feel we need to fit into a societal mold that has been created for us.” To help explore this theme, Picciche drew inspiration from “Aphrodite: mœurs antiques”, a late 19th-century novel by the French writer Pierre Louÿs. In Louÿs’ Aphrodite, a sculptor named Démétrios prefers his Aphrodite statue’s love of over real women, and takes the idiom of “putting someone on a pedestal” to morbid extremes. In Ivy’s Aphrodite weaves imagery of this story into Picciche’s personal life, detailing painful personal growth and exploring questions of identity with skill and nuance. While the album lives up to its thesis statement, there remains unresolved tension between its verdant arrangements and pensive lyrics.

Musically, the band’s sound is melting pot of folk influences, but the two most immediate references are latter-day folk heroes, Loreena McKennitt and Fleet Foxes. One keenly feels McKennitt’s presence in percussionist Davis Coleman’s tabla rhythms and Picchiche’s quavering harmonies on album opener “What I Mean To Do,” in which Picchiche animatedly delivers the lyrics“Lady of surprise / Lady of the night” with macabre energy. Conversely, the tempo and mood shifts of “Some Time” and “Song of the Wave” recall Fleet Foxes’ more ambitious moments (see: “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” or “The Shrine/An Argument”). Aphrodite feels influenced by Helplessness Blues in many ways—both albums are thematically complex and sonically dense, exploring identity through grandiose baroque-folk arrangements. One noticeable production difference, however, is In Ivy’s incorporation of traditional Indian sounds and scales, which tinge the album with an air of mystery.

Lyrically, Aphrodite tells the story of a failed relationship through the lens of Louÿs’ novel— just like Chrysis, the female protagonist, Picciche is put on a pedestal, and inevitably, things disintegrate when fantasy meets reality. She begins her story in earnest with the wide-eyed and optimistic “Child,” which delivers some of the album’s most succinct and effective songwriting in the guise of sunny vocal hooks and punchy guitars. Five songs (and an interlude) later, we arrive at the “Naivety,” the album’s final song, which finds her disillusioned and disgusted with her partner’s manipulative behaviors, and her own dependence on them. The meaning of the album title is brought into sharp focus here with a string of venomous references from the novel: “I need no Demetrios to blind me from his terror / With a comb and a mirror / I’m no Chrysis, no Touni,” she seethes, “I’m no god-damn Aphrodite.”

While rendered in a familiar and folky style by mostly major-key guitars and strings, her journey from innocence to experience is thorny and sometimes harder to understand. While “Some Time” and “Face To Face” are stark and easily understood, moments on “Song of the Wave” (“Many times I danced around the mermaids as they / Rose from the depths and rested”) and “Vases” (“She takes in all she is, and she drowns in it”) are more suggestive than illustrative, using Rupi-Kaur-like patterns and rhythms to intentionally blur the line between metaphor and reality.

On the micro level, Aphrodite is a familiar relational tale, but on a macro level, it deals with societal structures and false expectations. Who better represents the idealization of women than Aphrodite, who is, herself, the ideal of love and beauty? Given the complexity and scale of the themes at play, Aphrodite often has more intellectual depth than emotional resonance. Consequently, the strongest songs are those with the most internal cohesion between sound and concept (“Child” and “Naivety” succeed here), and the weakest are those where the music sounds retrofitted to the lyrics or vice versa (“Song of the Wave,” for instance). In Ivy’s strengths are their lyricism, arrangements, and production, and for the most part, they play to them on the album.

One of the brightest spots on the album is the “Interlude,” Aphrodite’s eye of the storm. Here, both Picciche and the band catch their breath for a moment of introspection. Cello and reverb-soaked guitar outline a genuinely bittersweet melody, and the tension found on other side of the interlude is momentarily relaxed. A little later, over a twinkling glockenspiel and moaning slide guitar, she reads a short passage from Louÿs’ novel. “What shall I say of love?” she recites. “It is the name given to sorrow to console those who suffer. There are but two ways of being unhappy: to desire what one has not or to possess what one desires. Love commences by the first and finishes by the second, in the most lamentable state–that is to say: as soon as it succeeds. May the gods save us from loving!”

In the novel, the vicious cycle described in the passage above plays out in gruesome fashion, as Chrysis commits suicide and her dead body is literally placed on a pedestal. Luckily, In Ivy’s Aphrodite has a more satisfying ending, if not a happy one. Picciche makes her escape on Naivety”, the album’s final song, smashing the pedestal being built underneath her and declaring her independence. “I don’t need no man to possess me”, she declares, “‘cause I’m a woman.” Compared with the metaphorically rich verses of the previous songs, the direct, nearly cliched language is intentionally jarring. Her decision is painful, but necessary.

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