Let’s Eat Grandma’s ‘Ava’ reveals a pair of brilliant songwriters who can pinpoint the most complex and devastating of feelings
I’m All Ears, the stunning new album by 19-year-old experimental duo Let’s Eat Grandma, is full of loud moments; but one of its most impactful is actually its quietest. “Ava” is a slight three-minute ballad that takes the penultimate place on the tracklist. While elsewhere, Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton work with producers SOPHIE and The Horrors’ Faris Badwan to creating ground-shaking setpieces like “Hot Pink”, and while synths dazzle like disco lights on the euphoric dream “Falling Into Me”, “Ava” is a simple piano affair. It speaks softly, and plainly, on an experience that has rarely been articulated so well in song; the feeling of watching on the sidelines as a loved one battles mental health issues.
The Ava of the song’s title is depicted as a scarred, withdrawn, afraid individual, one who cries out, “What do you want from me?” The voice that answers her, in a call-and-response narrated in Hollingworth’s gliding, robust vocal, is a gentle one, but one brimming with frustration and pain. “Why’d you take it as final, when you’re starting to spiral? / Girl, why can’t you see?”
The lyrics give voice to an ache that is so hard to articulate because it is, by nature, a secondary pain. It’s the feeling of being trapped on the sidelines of a catastrophe. “You know I know you can do it”, Hollingworth urges, with a note of desperation. The inherent tragedy of loving someone with mental health issues is the powerlessness of it; you can tell someone you think the world of them, that they are special, that they are loved, but you can’t force them to believe it.
In a press release on the song’s release last month, Hollingworth elaborated on the story the duo are telling. She said “Ava” is about “the realisation as you get older that some things are more complicated, and from the outside looking at a person you can’t always see how difficult some problems are to solve.”
“‘Ava’ is a song about the reality of being someone who is there – someone who not only checks in, but promises an unwavering support – but somehow still can’t be enough”
Perhaps one of the reasons this song cuts so deep in this particular moment is the way in which the frantic public conversation around mental health, and particularly depression, has exploded in recent weeks. Following the tragic suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in June, there was a wave of well-meaning, earnest discussion online about what can be done about an invisible epidemic. Per the New Yorker, suicide in the US has risen by 25% in the past two decades.
When news related to mental illness breaks, the trend is for many people to tweet and otherwise signal that those of us who are depressed should reach out for help, and the rest of us should “check in” on our loved ones. People reach for the right, reassuring words to say in a crisis – it’s only human. But it can also, sometimes, blur the issue. It’s comforting, but a sweeping oversimplification, to imagine that people suffer mental illness only because they don’t have people who “check in” on them; to assume they don’t have people who are actually desperate to help them. As one writer tweeted in June, “suicide is not simple, it can’t be solved by a lunch date.”
“Ava” is a song about the reality of being someone who is there – someone who not only checks in, but promises an unwavering support – but somehow still can’t be enough. It expresses a feeling of an overwhelming need to fix something that you can’t fix, to be let in when you’ve been shut out. This is a reality for a lot of people, but one that’s rarely been spoken to so cuttingly and directly in a pop song.
The lyrics of “Ava” show the kind of intense, loving bargaining that you go through when trying to help someone out of their own personal darkness. But Hollingworth’s delivery also contains complexity. She’ll help Ava, she promises on the refrain, whether “this” happens “once, or twice, or… again…”. That ellipsis is felt. Her voice becomes much softer as she breathes through the word “again”, heavy with the weight of realisation that there is a mountain before her. Steeling herself, she takes an emotional run-up to her next repetition of the word: “againnnnn”, she intones over rising chords, her gentle voice made hard with determination.
I'm All Ears is out now; revisit our 2016 interview with Let's Eat Grandma here