Mike Castle, a Chicago-based singer/songwriter and incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist, recently shared the story, embodiment and tale of his journey through a dark time in his life, in the language of music. This story came to us in a neat package of tracks, a record titled, Ilsa. Unable to bear the constant stimulation of life which came to him in the form of intense anxiety, Castle found himself in a hospital, certain his heart was failing him. From this experience he emerged with a new sense of hope, love, forgiveness and fulfillment. He emerged with a clearer picture of what his life was and what it will be, and that this battle with anxiety will be ongoing, but he can handle it. With this clearer picture, also came the understanding of imperfection and patience with the imperfections of life.
Ilsa is decorated with heartbreak, pain and revelation disguised in blues, rock and folk-inspired sounds. Every sound, instrument and voice you hear on this record is Castle himself. He worked tirelessly to create twenty to thirty demos and when it came down to getting into a studio, a collaborator suggested to Castle, he just do it all himself. “Just do it, it won’t sound the same if you don’t do it all,” he said. That was precisely what Castle did. The result was exactly what Castle wanted, a record wrought with subtle flaws and dripping with raw emotion and honesty, the epitome of Castle and his life.
It opens with “Trying to Be the Man.” You can hear the struggle instrumentally and lyrically. The struggle of sifting through the mess that one’s thoughts can become. The deep sea of questions, what ifs, why, when and how can be difficult to keep afloat in, to catch a breath when it’s constantly washing over you. The ringing guitar in your ears feels like that constant reminder and tug that anxiety manifests as. At times in the song it’s buried by other instruments, or Castle’s voice but at other times, it’s all you can hear. Within this, is a story, a message from a man who is trying to overcome this all to be a man for someone else. To be a man that exists within himself but is so hard to reach sometimes.
“Telephone Wire” is a bluesy piano ballad that goes hand in hand with “Trying to Be the Man.” Whether it’s the story of another love or the same love, it ends in pain but this is the kind of pain that’s accepted and resolved. Much of the theme of this record is acceptance of the way things are but knowing that, according to Castle, “love eventually wins.” Other tracks dealing with lost, past or present loves, like “Late Night Girls”, the 6 minute “Lake of Fire” and “Ilsa”, the namesake of the record, are rich with this theme.
“Rio Grande” is a short, absolutely rock-inspired track while “The Only Thing I Really Loved” starts sounding like a 60s rock track and when Castle’s vocals are added in, it takes on a more contemporary sound. Ilsa will not age as it incorporates elements of so many decades and styles of music. It’s the kind of record that could be listened to in 20 years’ time and could be placed anywhere in the chronologically organized file cabinet of the last 60 years of music. It’s clear that Castle had fun being creative on this album. No track begins or ends like any other track on the album and he showcases his ability as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and lyricist/storyteller.
“Light” is an undeniably unique track dominated by distorted vocals and ripping guitar. The distorted vocals sound like they’re coming to you through water. They sound like the sun looks when you open your eyes under water and see its light above you, flittering and rippling but irrefutably powerful.
In the darkness, there’s a light.
Keeps me safe and holds me tight.
“Light” builds gently until the light pours, explodes and shoots out of every crack, crevice and imperfection, reaching its highest point right when you think the song is going to end. It leaves you on the edge of your seat. This is one of my favorites on Ilsa.
“Guillotine” brings the record to a close, summarizing and reiterating what Ilsa represents. The perspective that life is so short but is so rich. It’s a decadent experience that can be so incredibly overwhelming at times, hard to deal with, unbearable but beautiful when you let it be beautiful. A line from “Guillotine” summarizes it so perfectly:
In my short time of being here, I have loved, lost, I lied.