Philly four-piece Sheer Mag has returned with their highly anticipated sophomore record, A Distant Call. On it they double down on their infectious take on ’70s arena rock and power pop that they brought to us on previous releases, but with a more refined finish; still they combine these classic sounds with a punk rock sensibility that makes them sound simultaneously familiar and fresh. There’s a political aspect this time around – they reclaim the music they love that never made room for them, banging out Judas Priest-esque anthems without perpetuating toxicity and machismo.
On this album, specifically, the political becomes personal. Many of the songs on this record document a specific period in frontwoman Tina Halladay’s life – newly single and broke after a layoff, her father, with whom she had a strained relationship, passed away. One could even say that this record is intersectional, delivering a bell hooks-esque message that politics are inherently personal because politics create the environment in which our personal lives proceed. Ultimately, it’s about the difficulty in finding healing when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and the way late capitalism alienates and commodifies everything in its way, personified best on lead single “Blood from a Stone.” Halladay wonders: “I can’t tell if I’m doing it to myself.” The world has taught us to such a degree that our worth is measured in dollars and cents that, when those dollars and cents don’t add up, we blame ourselves rather than the systems that oppress us. Of course, Sheer Mag’s tendency towards fist-pumping socialist anthems is nothing new, and the first two tracks on A Distant Call reflect these tendencies.
It’s on the third track that the more personal nature of this record truly begins to shine through, as Halladay leans into her inner Stevie Nicks on “Unfound Manifest.” This track is a surprisingly profound reflection on depression, specifically the shame and guilt to feel so terribly when others have it much worse. Halladay employs imagery that brings to mind a ship of refugees floating on a perilous sea, finding a metaphor for her own feelings here: “Things just dissolve day by day/in an ocean of pain, pulling the weary under,” but simultaneously feeling shame for acknowledging such a metaphor at all, like she doesn’t have a right to feel the way she does. This is just another way the systems-that-be keep us in our place, that you have no right to want more because you could be floating on a plank of wood somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea. This is a palpable shift on the record, as from here on out the riffs shimmer more than shout, and Halladay’s vocals skew more melodic than her more typical, delightfully shrill delivery.
Overall, this album exemplifies positive growth for a well-loved band. Instead of trying for something new and weird (in other words, fixing what wasn’t broken), they chose to refine what has been working for them, resulting in an album so polished it gleams.