The late 1990s blessed us with many amazing female singer/songwriters. I spent much of that transitional time between high school and college listening to Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, and Kate Bush. Poe was also in rotation, with many tracks from her debut album, Hello falling unto trip-hop mixtapes alongside Portishead and Sneaker Pimps.
Haunted was released in late October 2000, with many of its themes directly linked or referencing Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. Danielewski is Poe’s brother, and the two embarked on a tour promoting both works at Borders Bookstores in 2000. The next year, Poe’s “Hey Pretty” was remixed with Danielewski reading passages from the book (also known as the Drive By 2001 Mix).
That’s when I discovered the album, in the midsummer of 2001. I often joke that albums find me when I need them the most and this one is no exception. It was summer, I’d just finished my first year of college. I’d been through a couple of bad breakups and was hitting the pause button on my heart. Then my dad told me he had cancer.
These Shadows Keep On Changing
If House of Leaves is a winding labyrinth of interconnected ghost stories, lost letters, and family woes, Poe’s Haunted is a sonic collage, filled with sound loops, blips, glitches, echoes, answering machines, and voicemails. Using audio recordings she and her brother found after her father’s death, Poe pieces together a coming of age story filled with anxieties, doubt, rebellion, and — in the end — some sort of inner peace. From the moment “Exploration B” opens to the moment “If You Were Here” closes, you are truly taken on a journey, diving down into the depths of inner monologue.
On Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, the narrator of “The Ninth Wave” suite is adrift at sea, ebbing out of dreams and nightmares, trying to survive until the morning. With Haunted, Poe opens with the death of her father and the rest of the album is her sorting through her experiences with her father, much like you’d shift through a loved one’s belongings after they’re gone, picking through photo albums that have been gathering dust on a shelf for years. Deep periods of reflection often show us how strong we are — or let us at least build that front to the outside world. The song “Control” takes us right to the point:
“Well, you may be king for the moment
But I am a queen, understand?
And I’ve got your pawns and your bishops
And castles all inside the palm of my hand”
In 2001, I was trying to find my way in the world, ever so slowly cutting the apron strings with dull scissors. I was always the good daughter, staying out of trouble and making the honor roll. But the shift to college academic and new relationships brought out my stubborn streak. In those days, my father and I weren’t close, perhaps because we were too much alike. He was often the one that pushed me to excel. Looking back, it came from the best place, but sometimes I just wanted to be left alone.
At the end of “Terrible Thought,” Poe perfectly encapsulates how it is to be loved but a parent but not always heard. She layers the following audio clip of her father speaking over a child’s voice:
Daughter: “Sometimes I can’t hear myself think.”
Father: “You have to speak a little louder,
I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
Daughter: “Sometimes I can’t hear myself think.”
The thought of a life without my father was unimaginable, a deep wound I wasn’t ready to face. In many ways, that summer was the last gasp of simplicity. In July, my father would undergo surgery. In September, the Twin Towers would fall. Wars would start soon after. Changes and challenges would continue to unravel in the years to come. I’ve gotten good at coping or dodging things (I think), but I can tell you nothing feels as simple as that summer, locked away in my room with this album, quietly working through my own issues and understanding that my experience was not unique.
I often leaned into the angrier parts of the album, reveling in songs like “Walk the Walk” and laughing over the sardonic “Not a Virgin Anymore.” “Wild” is a techno-tinged rock epic, clocking in at 9 minutes, while “5 ½ Minute Hallway” recalled The Beatles. “Hey Pretty” rolls a jazz interlude into the tail end of a rock song. “Lemon Meringue” recalls the trip-hop stylings of Hello (and “Wild” even includes a callback sample to “Hello”). “Spanish Doll” features Spanish guitar flourishes while “Amazed” weaves in Indian music elements. Filing this album under “alternative rock” feels underwhelming and absolutely lacking.
A Way to Make it Sweeter
Grief has many stages — denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance — and Haunted hits them all. Throughout the album, Poe tries to reach her mother via phone and doesn’t until the end of “House of Leaves” with her father telling her “try to take the next step.”
My father’s cancer diagnosis and treatment were swift, a blur of doctor’s visits paired with a three-hour surgery, and prolonged recovery the remainder of the summer. But my mother’s brave face was slipping so I stepped into a much more adult pair of shoes in those months, whether it was household chores or emotional labor. We’d spend long nights at the hospital. While friends had picture-perfect summers poolside, I had nights of insomnia, which I spent writing, trying to process my feelings through poems. I’ve always used sarcasm to hide my soft heart so “Lemon Meringue” still speaks to me after all these years:
“Stop right there before I get bitter
There’s got to be a better way
There’s got to be a way to make it sweeter
A little more like lemon meringue”
As my father recovered, the emotional guards I had put up for years also softened and we were able to talk more. The now seasoned and sentimental version of myself is glad for the shift, even if it took a life-threatening event to turn a corner. I’m thankful for the hard lessons he tried to teach me all those years ago, as encapsulated in “Spanish Doll” as Poe’s anger turns to wistfulness:
“No matter how a story will unfold
You know I always will
Have part of you here”
While the adult version of Poe opens the album, it’s her inner child that closes it, having made peace with all that has transpired. “You can go now,” the child tells her father’s spirit, and the album’s closing synths and sound samples take us skyward, a mental white fadeout. (I like to think it also references the album cover itself, where Poe looks up as guided by a child’s hands — her inner child.)
Haunted is the last album Poe has made to date, due to a messy record label merger. The red tape was so thick that when her voice popped up elsewhere, she performed under the name of “Jane.” Every so often, I’ll peek in on her social media, selfishly hoping for a return. If it never happens, Haunted will live on — not as an apparition, but as a fully-fledged emotional masterpiece of complicated family relationships.
“Cause I hear your strange music gentle and true
I’m sharing with you some of my reflections
Singing inside me with the best parts of you
Now that I’m here”