Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

The Cabin (and the Music) in the Woods

"Aberdeen," Matt Sheehy’s musical memoir of grief and rebirth, is livestreaming this weekend.

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By the time I was done watching the new, live-streaming performance of Aberdeen, a surreal and soulful album from the Portland indie-rock band Lost Lander, I felt like an expert on its star, Matt Sheehy. I wasn’t, of course—Aberdeen is just one 75-minute fragment of Sheehy’s psyche—but the performance was so intimate that I felt like I was.

Part concert, part confessional and part woozy fantasy, this rendition of Aberdeen may seem like old news to people familiar with Sheehy’s nakedly emotional, gently yearning songs. Those who aren’t acquainted with his work are about to discover a brilliant and bizarre plunge into the mind of a singular artist.

Matt Sheehy, in a screen shot from the promo video for “Aberdeen.”

Aberdeen begins with Sheehy standing alone in a forest (the performances are being streamed from Corbett, Oregon). With disarming frankness, he begins telling us about some of the most anguished moments of his life, including the death of his mother. In one of the show’s many flashbacks, his girlfriend Sarah (bandmate Sarah Fennell) asks him, “Did your mom dying make you want to have kids?”

Conditioned by the tenets of toxic masculinity, I expected Sheehy to laugh and dismiss the idea. Yet he does want kids. He takes a job as a forester in Aberdeen, Washington (the hometown of two members of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic), in the hopes of raising money to start a family—a decision that divides him from Sarah. Heartbroken, Sheehy withdraws to a cabin in Aberdeen, where his only company is his downstairs neighbors, Casey and Flood.

Aberdeen alternates between Sheehy’s monologues and songs (he’s accompanied by musicians who appear and disappear as seamlessly as ghosts) and scenes chronicling his relationships with Sarah, Casey, and Flood. Casey and Flood have what Sheehy calls “I love you” fights (one involves a chore wheel with only Flood’s name), but Flood repeatedly forsakes Casey in favor of a shack that he believes contains a portal to parallel universes.

Which begs the question: where do Sheehy’s experiences end and where does the science fiction of Aberdeen begin? In 2008, Sheehy really did move into a cabin that he shared with a couple called Casey and Flood. But as Aberdeen builds toward its baffling and beguiling climax (which involves Casey and Flood doppelgängers), you wonder which parts of the story are real and which are wild exaggerations that lie to reach emotional truths (maybe Sheehy shared Flood’s desire to escape to another reality).

That said, I was entranced by Aberdeen, even when I was perplexed by it. Sheehy’s ideal audience will surrender and savor each sublime image, from Sheehy and Sarah nestled under a blanket during one of their beloved “rainy Sundays” to the sight of luminous dots of light being projected across Sheehy’s face.

Sheehy himself is a source of light. He speaks about grief, loneliness, wanting to be a father and wanting to be with Sarah so eloquently that I wanted to weep. He refuses to use comedic cleverness or macho bravado to cloak his emotions, and when he sings, “Give myself completely/Never go easy,” he does seem to have given himself completely—to his loved ones and to us.

Some audiences may wonder if one man’s personal concerns count for much when humanity is being ravaged by a pandemic. But Aberdeen is at once blissfully irrelevant and beautifully relevant. Humans may try to shove their inner dramas aside in times of crisis, but they’re never far away. And that, Aberdeen reminds us, is strangely beautiful.

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Aberdeen is livestreaming at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 11, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 12. Tickets and scheduling information: https://www.facebook.com/events/2656818957964870/

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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