“Oh, Deep is the Ploughing of Grief…”: They Grieve’s To Which I Bore Witness
“…But oftentimes less would not suffice for the agriculture of God…”
“There are three animals which seem,” writes Thomas De Quincey in Suspiria de Profundis, “beyond all others, to reflect the beauty of human infancy in two of its elements—viz. joy, and guileless innocence, though less in its third element of simplicity, because that requires language for its full expression: these three animals are the kitten, the lamb, and the fawn” (121). Though I would press back against De Quincey, arguing that, perhaps, these animals—if not all animals—reflect such beauty not owing to a lack of language but precisely because no human language is needed for, among other things, such animals to communicate so succinctly—so simply—with us. What could be more unmediated than the simple and full expression of pain, of suffering, of grief? And what’s more, since animals, and perhaps these three young animals in particular, can reflect joy, innocence, simplicity, and suffering, does that not make their grief and their pain all the more universally comprehensible? It is tragedy, full stop.
A prostrate two-headed fawn arrests our attention on the cover of They Grieve’s 2023 LP To Which I Bore Witness. The lower head, with eyes closed, hangs dramatically and is partly covered by a bent knee. The posture denotes death but also invokes a sense of shame—a sense that, in fact, one cannot bear witness to the ritual at hand. The upper head lies prone, but we cannot see any furrow to its brow. Though the eye might be open, it feels so empty and so lifeless. With its hindlegs bound with rope and two heads in different tragic reposes, this sacrificial fawn stirs within our grieving hearts a deep sense of hurt, confusion, and despair.
Fans of the Ottawa duo’s 2016 EP will recognize the scene. On I Made My Sacrifice Accordingly, a young rabbit—now sometimes called a kit or kitten—lies similarly bound and still, while a dagger of a bouquet hangs ominously over its lifeless body. Based on Timothy Findley’s novel 2009 Pilgrim and “exploring the psychological and emotional contours of loss, grief, and memory,” I Made My Sacrifice Accordingly is slightly more dynamic than To Which I Bore Witness, though that is less a valuation than it is a simple qualification. Opener “Cure” and closer “All that a Body can Suffer” feel more indebted to Isis and Cult of Luna and Neurosis in their narrative structure, emotional range, and instrumentation. That’s not to say, of course, that They Grieve abandons these influences on To Which I Bore Witness. Rather, this first EP, in its vision as a first-person narrative, hopes to be more exploratory.
To Which I Bore Witness does not shy away from exploration, particularly of the familiar topics of loss, grief, and memory, but it does feel like a record that can remember only grief and loss. I have struggled to write this review because, often, I struggle to sit unmoved, unperturbed, unburdened, or quietly with the oppressive weight of Witness. Simply put: it is so sad and I am so sad and, sometimes, it’s just all too much. Listen to the choir-like sample, in its high register, that cuts through the slouching doom of “Wither,” disappearing during the middle few minutes only to reappear at track’s end. “Mournful! That is saying nothing,” interjects De Quincey, “It was a wind that had swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries.” In those ethereal voices or strings or whatever they may be, I hear this wind, “the one sole audible symbol of eternity.” And it is an eternity of grief.
“Cower. Collapse. Wither.” There is little room for narration, for first-person narrative. To Which I Bore Witness is the bare, skeletal poetry of the eternally bereft. While “Under the Weight” begins quietly enough, it comes crashing and crushing in a drone-doom that cannot carry its own burden. We are afflicted with time, a solemn and hollow time that will, for us all, wilt under its own terrifying bulk. In the moments on Sacrifice where the tropes of post-metal would see fit to rescue us from our despairing, on Witness, They Grieve break up the crunch of riffs with organ-esque synths that sing a solitary yet universal sorrow.
Certainly, Sacrifice was invested in the void, but it has, on Witness, swallowed everything whole. “That sorrow, to which I bore witness, became void absolute,” we hear on the album’s title track. It is the absolute nature of the void that makes the doom stylings of Witness feel as heavy, as empty, as all-consuming as a black hole. While on the almost palliative and hopeful “Cure,” we could “dream you spoke the name of the void,” on “To Which I Bore Witness,” we cannot, anymore, speak such a name. But maybe this “void absolute” also gestures towards absolution. Can we be freed from our guilt or our shame? Is there any release, any cleansing, of the void that threatens to consume us in its howling grief?
Nothing lightens by album’s end. Or, perhaps it does, albeit in a way that feels less redemptive or conciliatory at first blush. “I am bound to only / the quiet call of ruin / and weakness holds me— / weakness alone holds me.” In these lines, bellowed as they are over the only track with the slightest tint—the slimmest glimmer—of a post-rock tremolo, we might be able to uncover something like rescue. It’s not liberation, nor is it freedom. It is a holding, and in this holding there is a coupling, and in this coupling, there is a sense of (comm)unity. Think of the strength inherent to weakness that it might alone hold you. Think of the strength inherent to you yourself, in all your grief and agony and anguish and heartbreak, to be held alone by something as delicate and precious as weakness. Think of what it means to be so weak and yet so strong, so humbled and yet so exalted.
So let us leave off where we started, with Suspiria: “Oh, grief! Thou art classed amongst the depressing passions. And true it is, that thou humblest to the dust, but also thou exaltest to the clouds. Thou shakest as with ague, but also thou steadiest like frost. Thou sickenest the heart, but also thou healest its infirmities.” Not for nothing, my breakthrough with To Which I Bore Witness came not only after finishing Suspiria but on a cool, sunny morning, frosty enough to require multiple layers but warm enough in the sun that you could feel such infirmities ease or lessen ever so much. When we allow ourselves the pleasure, the sometimes painful pleasure, of following bands such as They Grieve into what De Quincey names the “mighty and essential solitude”—the solitude that is the only thing “that wast, and art, and art to be”—we might just find each other there. We might just find a way to hold each other in our collective and ever-collecting griefs. We might just find, together, a life-long path towards healing even the sickest of hearts.