Modern-day epics are few and far between. In the sweeping tide of storytelling, few Odysseys exist. And though Sloppy Jane’s 2021 album Madison comes nail-bitingly close, and is even born of a grand poetic gesture, it is not an epic. It is something far more human, far more affecting and surpasses acts of heroism in lieu of visceral heartache so gloriously frank, you’ll want to tear your own heart out and hand it over to the band’s chorus. Maybe Madison’s ability lies in the utter brilliance of its inception—with little budget and major will, they are the first people to record an entire album in a cave. Or maybe it simply needed to be, in a bastardization of “Party Anthem”’s lyrics, everything it needed to be. Whatever the cause, Madison: The Complete Visual Album—released yesterday—furthers Sloppy Jane’s ever-evolving legend. A year and a half after its aural counterpart’s release, the project presses on, not for the world at large but for those awed eyes which knew its wonder after the first listen.
“I just want the people who love this to get something out of it,” says Haley Dahl, the founder and mastermind behind Sloppy Jane. Dahl speaks on the significance and depth of letting a project unfurl over the years. “I just think that the lifespan of art is much longer than the first three weeks that you’re putting an album out,” she says. “And if you work really hard on something it should get to live as long as you want. And you should get to work on it for as long as you want to. True fans of things do appreciate watching things unfold over time. And I know that from being a fan of music.”
The album remains unburied in the digital grave most projects defer to once the last date of the tour reaches a climax. The visual story—directed by Mika Lungulov-Klotz—reinvigorates the Madison era as the viewer is allowed into the dark, dripping world of the Lost World Caverns in West Virginia. The visuals are the brainchild of intensive collaboration between Dahl and Lungulov-Klotz, honing in on the cyclical nature of time and the absurdity of heartbreak.
“From the beginning, we had some very similar thoughts and feelings that we thought were important about the record,” Lungulov-Klotz says. “I think the concept of time is really important in this record, this project. So something we wanted to work with and on was something that exists maybe a little bit out of time—it kind of exists in its own little bubble. It is also tied to other records from Sloppy Jane, narratively speaking. It was important to bring in the narratives from the previous album as well.”
Having followed Sloppy Jane from previous eras, viewers will notice Dahl’s nails acting as a bridge between two worlds. Willow—the punk, surrealist concept album inspired by Dahl’s experience working in a strip club—sees Dahl in sparkly baby-blue nails, slowly deteriorating as if falling from grace. This meticulous detail edged its way into Madison. At times, Dahl’s nails are dark blue, demarcating the woman living and possibly rotting in the cave. At others, she or others are wearing the longer, glitter-crusted nails.
“Throughout the Willow videos, we have the nails slowly fall off until they’re these weird, kind of busted, incomplete, beautiful things,” Dahl says. “And then in Madison, it sort of becomes a way to represent who is me. You know immediately in ‘Party Anthem’ I have the same nails missing, the same way they end in Willow.”
The delicious attention to continuity can be attributed to the ongoing work between Dahl and Lungulov-Klotz, who also shot a majority of the visuals for Willow. Other elements from the previous era make their way into the visual album, including outfits, characters and, of course, a smattering of fucked up dentistry. What Willow broke apart, unnerved and scratching at its own stitches, Madison shakily put back together.
“If you followed the Willow album, it kind of ends with, in our opinion, this kind of very broken down version of… I guess me but the central character of the album shutting out a light and almost sucking herself into her own head,” Dahl notes. “The visuals in Madison are all in the imagination space of that person. I feel like Madison is a lot about unrequited love and also feeling really damaged, and I think that both unrequited love and trauma feel like a big challenge to escape your own brain.”
Madison descends into the character’s mind sleepily but not unpleasantly. “Overture” first greets the viewer, playing host to the rest of the album’s splendor. Just settling into the first notes, the camera winds around the orchestra. A quality of idle worship lingers in the opening moments—ethereal despite being literally entrenched. The cave setting is a compilation of disparate oddities: humans where there ought to be stalagmites and sound where there was silence. Like entering a forgotten megachurch now overrun by the perils of entwined realities, Madison waltzes through expansive caves at a lilting pace, unaware of how this community of musicians arrived but assured they thrive outside the confines of age.
As the steady notes break apart, we finally see Dahl conducting in signature blue velvet suit and added headlamp. Heartbreak-candied chaos then ensues for 50 minutes, the humidity sticking to every setting—even those outside the caverns. Lurching piano melodies tug the album along like a puppeteer accustomed to grandiose gestures while the strings act every bit the attentive audience.
Matching the exquisitely haunting moments, there are precious moments of levity. As Dahl puts it, “Tragedy is so cartoonish. I think that sometimes it’s nice for [heartache] to be represented by nonsense, too.” The rest of the visual album is meant to be seen, heard, digested—not explained.
“The experience was just so special,” Lungulov-Klotz says of making the many-armed monolith Madison. “And I don’t know what translates and what doesn’t. But shooting ‘[The] Constable’ was just so intense and special, having everyone leave at the end. And what Haley looks like on the screen, I feel it’s how most of us felt about the end.”
As for the romantic torment that inspired Madison, Dahl has let her muse go. “I did eventually give the person the album when it was done, and it was very dramatic and beautiful,” she says. “And they loved me too for a little bit and then it kind of crumbled under the weight of reality. But I think that you know… I said my piece.”
In a world that shies away from intense feeling in favor of lukewarm projections and numbness, Dahl opts to stick her finger in the open wound. Does picking at scabs in the corner make Dahl the most popular person at the party? No. What it does do is birth some of the most entrancing lyrical and musical discord. If, as Annie Clark once said, all music is tension and release, Madison’s universe is an ocular migraine of grotesque elegance. Its melodies affix themselves to your mind, humming around the dark dampness of the brain. It is not easily forgotten. With any luck, the cave is still reverberating to the tune of Madison.
View the full visual album here.
Photo by Mika Lungulov-Klotz