All We Grow
, August 27th, 2010 11:14
It seems odd now, but – speaking personally – the charm of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, remained elusive for a while. Perhaps it was the tale of Justin Vernon’s three month retreat to record in a secluded cabin, where he allegedly fed himself with two deer shot in nearby woods, that made me suspicious. It seemed contrived, a back story embraced by the media’s need to lend authenticity to their eulogies rather than simply praise a piece of music. But then I saw the band live, and the paper-thin skeletons of songs I’d found on record were fleshed out, dismissing, for the most part, my lingering doubts. What really floored me, however, was the encore, a take on ‘I Believe In You’ from Talk Talk’s untouchable Spirit Of Eden, a record so complex the band never even attempted to take it on the road. Not only did Bon Iver pull it off – magically, as it happens – but Vernon even had the modesty to hand over vocal duties, tackling the choirboy harmonies of the chorus while his drummer slipped effortlessly into Mark Hollis’ role.
That drummer was Sean Carey, a classically trained percussionist who spent two weeks learning every note on For Emma... before approaching its author and volunteering to join his live band. Dedication’s what you need, it would seem, to join Bon Iver, and dedication is exactly what Carey exhibits throughout every second of his own debut solo album. Written on tour and pieced together at home during breaks in the For Emma... release cycle, it boasts the same richness of texture and intricate detail that set Talk Talk apart in the latter part of their career, but though the echoes are many they never overshadow Carey’s own craft. For starters, he has the good sense to acknowledge their influence in the way he opens the collection with an instrumental passage that leans heavily on the opening section of Spirit Of Eden’s ‘Desire’. There are no secrets here, he seems to be saying: this prelude to ‘Move’ might appear superfluous to a song which a minute later reveals itself to be a more mellifluous approach to Bon Iver’s intimacy, but it’s also an honest declaration of his debt to the 1980s musical pioneers. Rather than proving self-indulgent, furthermore, it wrong-foots the listener perfectly, making its presence doubly worthwhile.
All We Grow, however, offers far more of these unexpected twists than it does nods to its forefathers. Embroidered with rich harmonies, imaginatively arranged, lyrically expressive if still enigmatic, it exudes a gorgeous calm and warm sentiment, whether in ‘Move’’s delicately plucked guitar and whispered plea to “run my fingers through your hair” or the joyous, percussive ‘In The Dirt’. This latter, in particular, stands out as one of the album’s many highlights, its rippling Steve Reich pianos lent depth by handclaps that drive it towards an unforeseen reflective middle section that recalls Sufjan Stevens’ quieter moments on Come On Feel The Illinoise, woodwind bleeding into the picture before the main theme returns. That it’s followed by a two minute instrumental that sounds like Eno at his most ambient adds to its charm, and that this in turn is succeeded by the aching melancholy of ‘Mothers’ confirms that Carey has unearthed a space of his own. Here the woozy swoon of his harmonies somehow manages to carry the weight of his only lyrical stretch into the world at large, a lament for women whose “kids can't go to school in the morning / Because narcotics grow better than books”. The drug reference seems initially clumsy amidst the confidences he’s shared so far, most of which seem to relate to the wife he’s missing, but Carey reels things back carefully to his own singular hope, “for their mothers and their daughters/ To be loved”. He doesn’t hesitate to throw in another curveball, though, as the song segues into ‘Action’, whose crunched guitars decay over a cymbal-free rhythm track in another tip of the hat to Talk Talk (this time, perhaps, Laughing Stock’s ‘Ascension Day’).
Carey returns to more pastoral themes with ‘In The Stream’ where, over a placid piano line, he’s joined on vocals by his sister Shannon Carey. “I am wind in the pines,” he sings as Mike Noyce adds campfire atmospherics with a viola, “I am a line you can't define,” before the track seems to dissolve into a mist of creaking chairs, distant tinkling sounds, an ever more urgent piano, a last request to “Be in that canyon / That corridor” and a final, mysterious reassurance that “I'll be an architect on window steam / I’ll be in the stream”. In its wake the title track initially seems parched, but its abstract, occasionally baroque shapes - traced out with vibes, upright bass and bass clarinet - are full of light, shadow and the room’s reverberations. And, besides, there’s still the closing ‘Broken’ to go, a song which – in clumsier hands – could sound like one of those whining Coldplay anthems that soundtrack epiphanic moments in ITV dramas, but which Carey reduces to its barest essentials, the emotion at the song’s heart demonstrated by the way his melody lifts up at the end of the verse’s first line while accompanied by little more than a softly stroked piano. When the song does finally burst open, it’s with high wordless harmonies, vibes and the comforting insulation of an enveloping but never claustrophobic cocoon of sound: the perfect end.
Put frankly, All We Grow eclipses Bon Iver’s debut in not only its accessibility but also its complexity and ambition. It also succeeds in capturing the essence of Talk Talk’s greatest moments without ever resorting to pale imitation and that, dear reader, is high praise indeed. Carey, moreover, earned it without shooting a single deer.