Swim Camp finds fading beauty in the decay of 'Steel Country' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Whether we like it or not, everything loses its luster. That’s blunt, I know, but it’s common knowledge things run their course. We get preoccupied with the next new thing and take off towards it, often too caught up chasing that high to think about what we’re leaving behind.

On the other hand, Philadelphia’s Swim Camp — the project of singer-songwriter Tom Morris — has made it a prerogative to excavate everything we abandon on Steel Country, the band’s latest album, out today via the local label Julia’s War (curated by Douglas Dulgarian of They Are Gutting a Body of Water). The sixteen alt-country-tinged tracks are a critical analysis of the glory days, an in-depth study of the art of decay.

As his cats clambered into the Zoom frame, Morris reflected on the patchwork of personal anecdotes, scenes of deteriorating infrastructure, and the cast of Alex G-esque characters that compose Steel Country. A product of stillness and seclusion, he spent five days in December of 2021 at a log cabin in the Poconos where he recorded the bulk of the record.

Despite hauling all of his instruments and recording gear into what was essentially the middle of nowhere, Morris still found himself ruminating on the symbols of urban decay scattered around his neighborhood in Kensington: dilapidated buildings, neglected streets. He tried to envision its hey day and the people who used to live there. The lives they used to lead. Who they used to be.

These long-vacant structures began to appear to Morris as a form of “living history,” a testament to what once was. Walking his usual route one day, Morris was approached by a man he’d pass by all the time smoking on the stoop. A long-time resident, he  started reminiscing about the “good old days” when Kensington was a hot spot when the factories were bustling, and people would pack into the stores along the main drag.

“He has this real pride for Kennsignton but there’s also a sadness about what it’s not anymore,” says Morris. “That overall idea applies to life.”

Swim Camp - No

That acute ache for what things used to be is at the heart of Steel Country. It applies to the scene he sets in his father’s home on “No,” admitting that he can feel it melt away.

It applies to the polite small talk over the phone on “Apple” with someone you’ve lost touch with. It applies to relationships that gradually become estranged the same way it applies to boarded-up windows and broken glass. In both cases, something was lost.

This blur bleeds into the crossover of influences Morris cites. Ranging from My Bloody Valentine to the bluegrass his dad, who also played guitar, would play for him, Morris creates his own form of “boot-gaze”-think Kevin Sheild’s staring at a pair of Tecovas instead of beat-up sneakers. The twang-tinted shoegaze buoys his vocals instead of burying them in a conscious step away from his signature lo-fi style.

“I was using low fidelity as a mask in a way,” says Morris. “There’s a certain detachment from lyrical content and real vulnerability that I was sort of leaning on as a crutch.”

Still, even when crafting his most emotionally raw record yet, Morris is careful not to put all of his cards on the table. Whether it’s the sparse imagery on tracks like “Pillow” or the mystery audio rip used on the intro to “Puddle,” he continuously tiptoes the line between spilling his guts and being completely covert. Instead of submerging his vocals to give the album an ambiguous air, he relies on abstract storytelling to maintain a degree of mystery.

The characters Morris employs throughout the album are often lifted from the short stories he writes and serve as stand ins for certain situations he’s not ready for everyone with a Spotify account to hear about. On the surface level, the character in “Dougie (For Sharyl)” is just your hometown drug dealer, but eventually becomes a symbol for the toxic turn that codependent relationships can take.

“It’s important to tell stories that are truthful and meaningful and real but it doesn’t have to be you,” says Morris. “There’s a lot of ways to work your truths into stories without being super blunt with it.”

The idea that we’ll never have definite answers makes Steel Country so captivating. In the same way, only Morris can decipher what’s fact from fiction in his lyrics; only the people that lived in these places could tell us what it was like. What it felt like to work in those factories, to live in those houses, to see the neighborhood lit up, to experience that shine. We’ll never get to know, but those questions will live on in our minds.

Eventually, everything will become part of the living history Morris mentions. An homage to what happened and a promise that what’s gone won’t be completely forgotten.

Swim Camp will host an album release show on March 4 at Space 1026 with Maneka, Sun Organ, and Greg Mendez. You can purchase a ticket here.

Related Content
View All Related Content

No news added recently