It’s said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but it depends on what’s not killing you. For Queen Kwong’s Carré Kwong Callaway, there was a lot. First, being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, then—two months later—the break-up of her marriage to Wes Borland. She’d been living with him in Detroit, with a whole host of cats they’d rescued, only to be forced out of the house they’d made their home. She was given three days to move out, to rehouse all the cats, to say goodbye to a life and a marriage and a husband she thought she knew. She was also ostracized by those in the music industry who felt they stood more to gain by being friends with Borland than with her. In other words, Callaway lost pretty much everything, including a friend whose couch she crashed on when she moved back to LA after the breakup and three elderly cats of hers that she wasn’t able to be with when they died because she’d had to rehome.
And so, there was a hell of a lot that wasn’t killing her. While there’s no clichéd fairytale, self-help moral to this story about becoming stronger through adversity—this isn’t about Callaway rising reborn and renewed from the ashes and wreckage of her past—Couples Only is nevertheless a brilliant testament to human endurance, to battling extreme adversity, to keeping going when you really don’t want to. To survival. Indeed, Callaway didn’t even want to make another record. It was just the only thing she knew how to do. Otherwise, that stuff that wasn’t killing her—let alone the stuff that almost was—might just have done.
Written and recorded with longtime collaborator Joe Cardamone from The Icarus Line, Couples Only dives headfirst into the darkness. It doesn’t hold back when it comes to processing either her own grief for that time, or the anger and resentment for her ex. The snarling and accusatory—but also slightly self-recriminatory—slither of opener “I Know Who You Are” kicks things off before “EMDR ATM” details—obliquely but explicitly—the kind of gaslighting Callaway received from Borland. “You took my soul down, down, down,” she sings as it ends, and they’re words riddled with the kind of hollowness that only comes from pain, from love.
But while she may be down in that song, she’s certainly not out, and the Beat poetry–esque delivery of “Sad Man” offers an almost apathetic indictment of the “wannabe fuckboy clowns” and other juvenile personalities that populate the music industry. Elsewhere, “The Mourning Song” offers a scathing takedown of her ex—“Back it up, back to your prime / When was that, maybe 1999? / You were onstage living a monkey-do life / Another day, another new disguise”—while “Biggest Mistake” pulls no punches either: “You're stuck in shit, surrounded by these flies,” Callaway whispers. “Eager motherfuckers will always take your side.”
This, then, is her side of the story. But it’s not just about her and him, about her surviving through the worst period of her life. It’s also about an industry that’s riddled with men—from rock stars to festival promoters—who use their positions of power and privilege to abuse and exploit and take advantage of women who don’t have as much of a voice as they do. Couples Only, then, is an incredibly important step toward redressing that balance, a personal and universal clapback at a status quo that’s been allowed to exist for far too long. It’s also a phenomenal record by an artist at the top of her creative game.