Knifeplay knows grief isn’t going anywhere. Instead of trying to avoid it or allowing it to fester, the Philadelphia-based band asks how they can make it bearable on their sophomore album, Animal Drowning, out last week via Topshelf Records. Originally the solo effort of Tj Strohmer, the bedroom project turned full band blends orchestral arrangements with stark lyricism to create a snapshot of loss.

Animal Drowning seems to dwell in the shadow of sorrow. Just like their previous home recordings, an ominous darkness seems to hover above them, always slightly out of reach but ever-present. As Strohmer contrasts his time living in Philadelphia with his rural southern Maryland upbringing, he flits between opposite realms allied only by the ache they evoke. Some songs consist of just a few words, like those murmured on “Cold Rain,” while others ask probing questions like on “Ryan Song” when he begs to know “Why’d they have to make you carry the cross?” Either way, the effect is the same, a numbness that feels like urban isolation and agrarian desolation-two different landscapes emblematic of loneliness.

Knifeplay - Ryan Song

As Strohmer delves into themes of death, drugs, heartbreak, abuse, and self-destruction, his wispy vocals maintain a delicate distance from the subjects. It feels like a fuzzy field report on sadness, the details vieled by the walls of distortion and weepy violins. Sometimes Strohmer gets up close to his subjects, evoking exact incidents like the snowy scene he depicts in “Untitled.” Other times, it feels more like an abstract feeling not tied to one thing. Whether he’s a passive observer or simply trying to soften some of the emotions that are especially hard to relive there’s still an encroaching sense of defeat.

Stitching together elements of slowcore and shoegaze while taking a folk-minded approach to songwriting, they create an album that confronts the pain of reality. Wrestling with disillusionment, Strohmer attempts to reconcile with what’s happened, finding both conflict and comfort there as on “Bleed” when he professes,  “You wanna hug your mother / Until you fade away.” Trying to escape from the nihilistic circles he spins in, there are instances where he can’t help but resign himself to what feels like a never ending cycle of let downs. On “Promise,” he comes to the conclusion that nothing ever really changes, confessing, “There’s no such thing as growing up / Where the evil returns and repeats.”

Knifeplay counterbalances the constant loss through their sprawling arrangements. The monotony of suffering is severed by their capricious approach, fluttering between gentle keys, a grandiose string section, and moody atmospherics. This interplay of darkness and light creates a duality that keeps the sorrow of the deteriorating family relationships and the dismal reality of drug use at bay.

The spacious soundscapes laced throughout the album allow Animal Drowning to be comfortable with a sense of inconclusiveness. As the band confronts failures, reckons with the past, and tries to make sense of the barren circumstances we’re all born into, they don’t try to ignore how bleak it can all be. Knifeplay isn’t kidding themselves or the listener on this record — the world can be a sad, scary, and above all, lonely place. You can try to close your eyes to it, but eventually, we all have our brushes with tragedy.