We tend to think of sad, acoustic guitar anchored music as being intimate (I don’t want to call it ‘folk’ because folk is already another kind of music. You know, like The Carter Family singing “John Hardy”). It’s a music of deeply personal songs whispered in bedrooms and as such it has the effect of feeling like a direct communication between us and a softly crooning bearded guy. It’s a kind of music that can really only exist perfectly on record, as softly crooning into a microphone in front of 600 people all craning their necks to get a glimpse of the artist’s sensible clothing doesn’t have quite the same effect. Recently, though, there seems to have emerged an interest in taking the small, cramped spaces of confessional music and cracking them wide open without sacrificing the personal content and directness that made the original style so appealing.
Phil Elverum’s songs as The Microphones and Mt. Eerie are so lyrically intimate they can sometimes feel like reading an intercepted letter. It’s almost uncomfortable. Yet while the songs have their moments of expected musical smallness, of hushed words and strummed guitar, Elverum often chooses to mirror the emotional content of the lyrics (often represented with nature imagery) in the music itself, deploying icy chimes, oceans of pounding drums, thundering electric guitars, and field recordings of crackling fires. More recently, Matthew Houck, AKA Phosphoresent, has taken up a similar, although more sedate, songwriting style. His simple, mostly acoustic music (scarcely will you hear more than four chords in a song) is built into enormous, open spaces. Not as violent as Elverum, Houck’s songs tend to expand via warm choruses of voices; long, relaxed arrangements; epic reverb; and, of course, field recordings of thunderstorms. Both men are also hugely concerned with nature in their lyrics, Elverum’s towering mountains can stand in for the horrors of mortality while Houck sees the waves at night as both a reminder of that mortality and a sweet promise of all the beauty that awaits us until then.
Now, consider Jonas Bonnetta of Evening Hymns, the next in this line of autocratic, naturalistic songwriters with a flair for the climactic. Bonnetta described the recording of A-side “Dead Deer” to Ampeater thusly: “All my recording in the past has been really hushed and this was the first time I really got to play loud on a recording. I remember the snowy streets outside of the gallery and the people walking by the windows as we tracked the guitar and I was jumping into each chord pretending I was in a rock and roll band.” Aside from just being awesome, this anecdote shows us the new Bonnetta (most of his previous work has been under his given name instead of the Evening Hymns moniker). The content may remain dark and confessional, but the music is expansive, enormous, like the “stars in the desert” riddling the sky on B-side “Cedars,” which is a spacious elegy built around an electronically manipulated recording of a piano, which was played by a friend and then recorded from one floor down. Bonnetta’s innovations tend to come in this unobtrusive, humble way, in service of the songs. The piano drone is a perfect soundscape over which to set the direct address of “Cedars,” yet it never sticks out as something done for the sake of strangeness or an air of capital-A Art. It doesn’t even occur to you to ask what it is (it’s pretty much impossible to tell that it was once a piano) because it sounds so perfectly matched to the content.
Bonnetta is a native of the small town of Orono, Ontario, now transplanted to the urban environs of Toronto, but with a heart that still wanders out amongst the fields and forests. The image of cedar trees returns over and over again in his new album Spirit Guides, a record that gives you the same kind of feeling as gazing out at the tree-lined horizon at an hour when it seems like no one else in the world is awake. In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that this music was pretty much made for me: simple, lovely melodies; male vocals that sound as cracked and worn as old leather twinned in harmony with ethereally pure female vocals; mortality-heavy lyrics that hint at transcendence (“everybody’s gonna live forever and no one ever dies anyway”) and are delivered slightly behind the beat; huge climaxes with lush violins and flutes and pedal steel. Evening Hymns manages to walk the fine line between experimentation and melody, introspection and catharsis. They have songs, but they’re not going to hit you over the head with them, choosing instead to let them slowly, organically unspool, revealing lyrics about dying that somehow make you feel good.
A-side “Dead Deer” commences with the gentle, three chord acoustic strums you’d expect, opening out into the simple lyrical trope of exhausted lovers collapsed on the floor. It is both sweet and slightly unnerving, mingling imagery of salvation and hand-holding sweetness with the implied sex and animal exhaustion of the original image: “my body it lies like an ark / like a bridge over yours in the dark”. And then, about 90 seconds into the song, a savage electric guitar breaks everything open into the alarming chorus of “and I lie like a dead deer / down in the cedars.” That guitar feeds an electricity directly into the song. Maybe it’s naïve to think so, but you can practically feel Bonnetta jumping up and down with each huge chord and all the energy that movement imparts. Also note the slight asymmetry of the guitar part just after the titular words, the way the chords come every two beats instead of the expected three, which lends a slight discomfort to the music that pushes it onward. The electric guitar is so enormous it practically strips the lyrics from the vocals for the rest of the song, leaving only the soaring melodies and the occasional word or two that breaks through. Midway through the song, strings sneak in underneath to push the song to even further heights as that aching chorus melody churns and churns before finally withdrawing back into the original verse pattern, this time led by a gentle, understated accordion. The entire song has the shape of a wave crashing on shore – you can see the explosion coming from the opening chords, and soon the song is all sputtering foam and hungry fingers of water, but just afterwards, in that last instrumental verse, it looks as if none of it was ever there at all.
“Cedars” packs a lot of emotional weight for a B-side, opening with a minute of a slowly simmering drone before a hymnal chorus of Bonnettas sings the rubato verses in that unique voice of his, which shares the huskiness and rough imperfections of Houck (he doesn’t crack his voice anywhere nearly as much as as Houck does, though. I know that drives some people crazy), yet can transcend those flaws to rise into a lovely pure sound, as on the lines “lit up the stars in the desert / reveal the bending of the night.” Gentle fingerpicking and a sublime chorus of reverby, female oohs then replaces the drone, surrounding the vulnerable yet undramatic lead vocals with a translucent cloud of sound that gradually yields back into the drone, topped with a cluster of breathy flugelhorns and flutes and resolving into, god bless him, a field recording of a thunderstorm. It’s a device that almost shouldn’t work, it’s so frequently used, yet it does. There’s really not a much better way to conjure up that much open space, that much power and melancholy. And, if any song deserves the stately solemnity of a rainstorm, it’s an honest and serious elegy like this, written for Bonnetta’s father and full of the kind of mixed up feelings that kind of absence has to create: “Send for me my lanterns / send for me my maps / cause I lost all my direction / when you got caught in dark, dark traps.” The chorus ends with the words “everybody’s gonna live forever and no one ever dies anyway” a hopeful thought of living on, if only in memory, gently and sadly countered by the song’s last words, in which a gentle switch of focus lights up the singer’s own eventual mortality: “You can’t turn this boy around / getting older growing down.”
The Canadian press has been raving about Spirit Guides since its release last month, but us Yankees have been slow to pick up on things. I know it’s hard for us to admit that sometimes the Canadians can do things better (i.e. health care), but you know, maybe the sting will go away after we all sit down and listen to Evening Hymns for awhile. Let’s not let pride keep us away from this lovely album, eh?