“High and Hurt,” the second track off Iceage’s new album, Seek Shelter, begins with a sneer: “You ain’t ready for it/Still, take the throw/Life’s a competition, don’t you know?” frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt bellows with an imperious air, his words practically curling like cigar smoke. Beneath him, the drums and bass shake, and the guitars spring up like spikes; the rumble is contained by a heady fog that feels like the handiwork of their first outside producer, Peter Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom) of Spacemen 3.
This is how it goes on the verses of “High and Hurt,” the controlled chaos underneath and Rønnenfelt holding that nasty, haughty tone as if he needs to stay in character to make sense of those that want to shape a world out of ruthlessness and greed. But before each chorus, there’s an exhale. The guitars strike sky-high notes that wobble with some unease, but keep their aim true. The melody Rønnenfelt finds next — as he sings of landslides and pariahs, possible balms to this misery — is a familiar one: the old hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon and Charles H. Gabriel, famously interpreted by the Carter Family in 1935, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a pillar of American music. In the century since, it’s been performed by too many artists to count (even the aforementioned Spacemen 3 did a version in 1988, making its use on “High and Hurt” a nice bit of musical circle-making in its own right). It’s a song that prays for salvation, with a melody that strives towards it — reaching, retracting, then reaching again towards some higher plane in a way that so many great songs have tried to do since.
“High and Hurt” isn’t a song of grief, mourning, or spiritual warning like Habershon and Gabriel’s original, or A.P. Carter’s reworking, but Iceage still use “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in the most traditional sense — as a path to transcendence. After twice pairing the melody with his own lyrics, Rønnenfelt breaks into the famous refrain itself, drums pounding beneath him, guitars ringing around him, though the way he sings it, there’s not “a better home awaiting in the sky,” but “another home awaiting in the sky.” “High and Hurt” is not about waiting out life’s miseries for some later reward, but working to break those cycles of cruelty here, now, even if they try to kick you each time you’re up. It’s a far more noble kind of transcendence.
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