Shannon McArdle's solo debut surveys the wreckage of her marriage.
Thu Aug 7 2008
Photograph: Sonya Kolowrat
The Mendoza Line’s 2000 album We’re All in This Alone has a softly heartbreaking song, written by Shannon McArdle, called “A Bigger City.” The indie band had just relocated to Brooklyn from Athens, Georgia, with McArdle following shortly thereafter to join full-time, yet the line “A bigger city’s got its charm / But it could do our romance harm” seems to predict trouble.
“I wore my heart on my sleeve back then,” McArdle says in her musical, Southern accent, sitting in her Prospect Heights apartment. “It was a confusing time. I was in my early twenties trying to figure out how I was going to make it work up here, in this band that was beginning to get some recognition but wasn’t making any money.”
More perilously, she was also in love with Timothy Bracy, one of the Mendoza Line’s two other songwriters; at the time, Bracy was dating and living with another woman—who also happened to be in the band. “I think ‘A Bigger City’ was just about a longing to be someone’s girlfriend,” McArdle, 32, says. “The validation of being able to say, ‘This is my boyfriend, and we have this band together.’ And I mean, it all happened: We became a real item, and eventually he asked me to marry him.”
McArdle and Bracy wed in 2005. In February 2007, he left—the band, the marriage, everything. “There was a betrayal on his end,” she says, speaking easily but measuring her words, “and we went into therapy and tried to work on it. Our day-to-day life together was still pretty amicable. So when I got home from work that night and there was just a note, I couldn’t believe it. And I haven’t seen him since.”
To fans of the Mendoza Line, these events and their aftermath—chronicled in searing emotional detail on McArdle’s new album, Summer of the Whore—could be seen as predestined. The group was infamous for airing its laundry in public, with onstage crying and fighting not uncommon; its titles (“It’ll Be the Same Without You,” “Will You Be Here Tomorrow?,” I Like You When You’re Not Around) reveal an almost sadistic desire for heartbreak. Even the group’s name, a baseball term for the point at which mediocrity becomes something worse, speaks to a love of failure. “I think at some point the guys [in the band] got a little too into that,” McArdle says. “Whereas I was like, Okay, I’m miserable, and I write miserable songs, but I don’t like to be miserable. You know, I want to make some money and settle down, and have a happy life.”
If that life isn’t quite here this summer, McArdle is at least able to laugh and joke while telling the story of her marriage and divorce. Last summer was different. A few months after Bracy left, she recalls, “I finally felt I could do something artistically, which I wasn’t sure I’d ever do again.” She contacted Adam D. Gold, the drummer in the Mendoza Line’s last lineup, who’d been going through a breakup of his own; engulfed in a heavy mood, the two banged out ten songs in a matter of a few weeks at Gold’s Park Slope studio.
The record does not lack for crushing moments, but “He Was Gone” (about the baby McArdle felt she was promised) stands out: “He would have had blue eyes, I’m sure / He would have made you love me more / You’d have seen me hold him close and sing / You’d have forgiven me anything.” The singer admits that that song was the hardest to get through. “I really thought that Tim and I would have a child, it was something I was really looking forward to with him. Oh, I cried when we recorded it; there are some parts where I’m sort of bellowing out, and Adam would say, ‘That just sounds like it hurts.’ ”
Both are quick to point out that as direct as McArdle’s lyrics are, Summer of the Whore’s title is less than literal. “It was more about a sense of living with desperation,” Gold recalls. “We were feeling out of sorts, living in a way that we both recognized could not go on for long.” McArdle remembers meeting up with Gold, who produced and handled several instruments, for recording sessions. “One or both of us would look kind of haggard, and the other would say, [Adopts a depraved voice] ‘Were you a whore last night?’ ”
Of course, summer gives way to fall, and “Come, Autumn Breeze,” the album’s penultimate song, points the way forward for McArdle. “I think by August of last year I began to open my eyes to the idea that just because someone rejected me doesn’t mean that I’m undesirable,” she says. “There’s a lot of misery on the album, but I knew it would change. I mean, I can’t stay a whore forever!”