[18 January 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s hard to imagine Thomas Bartlett, the driving force behind Doveman, worried about conforming to anything, let alone naming an album The Conformist. His voice is a wavering hush, a sound folded in on itself, shying away from everything around it. And it’s pretty hard to fall in line when you sing like you don’t even know the line is there.
And, at first, the album seems more a practice in uniformity, rather than conformity. Bartlett is right up front with piano and hushed vocals. So to sit and listen to The Conformist all the way through is to hear a delicate, steady surge, an exercise in piano balladry touched up with classical elements.
But that impression doesn’t hold up, and the more you can live in each song, the more the album title takes on a sort of irony. There is no pinning this record down. And though Bartlett and his band—comprised of, among others, banjo player Sam Amidon and composer Nico Muhly—are quiet, they are far from fragile. These songs stretch out and take up space. They don’t announce themselves so much as they seep into your consciousness.
“The darkness tells me that I’ve waited long enough,” says Bartlett to start off the record on “Breathing Out”. Placed over carefully struck piano chords, it sounds like a reticent emergence from the shadows, but only out into some half-light. And the other players slowly emerge behind him, in the faint call of a slide guitar, in the soft surge of strings. Each element is threadbare, but together they mesh into a sturdy and sizeable whole. And once you get to the song’s end, you get caught up in the swirl along with Bartlett, and submit to the ghostly world of this album.
That submission yields some pretty deep, if not immediate returns. What seemed like uniformity early on reveals itself to be a hard-earned, bittersweet mood. And in that mood, the music explores everything from watery electronics on “Memorize” to the moody controlled rock of “Hurricane” to the near-country shuffle of “Castles”. Each piece raggedly fits with the one before it, but more importantly carves out its own space on the album, winning your attention even as the track before lingers.
The drawback to the tension The Conformist delivers, where quiet intensity grows stronger because it never breaks and crescendos, is that it can sometimes leave you with a one-note album, a whole with no truly outstanding parts. But Bartlett and company nail some highlights without feeling like they’re pushing for singles. “The Best Thing” and “Angel’s Share” are both outstanding pop songs, each building ever so slyly to a chorus that is not only melodically tight, but also ties the whole track together, concentrating the watery melancholy into a potent, lasting dose. But Bartlett doesn’t have to tighten up his melodies to create a stand-out moment either. “From Silence” is the longest track here, and also the most arresting. As Bartlett sings at his most broken (“Love, what have you done to me?” he asks), the song itself unravels. Strings swell and shriek, drums fall off the tempo and find it again, and the whole mess sounds beautiful.
As quiet as this all is, and as singular as Bartlett’s singing appears, The Conformist takes on a communal feel as it moves forward, and with good reason. Dawn Landes, Glen Hansard, Norah Jones, the National’s Matt Berninger, and plenty of others help out here. They all make their contribution subtly, melding their voices and instruments into this swirling storm, expanding it and churning up the album’s stillness. The exception is Berninger, who lends his backing vocals to a number of tracks—including the stand-outs mentioned above—and his boozy rumble casts a long, affecting shadow over these songs behind the thin trunk of Bartlett’s voice. There’s a space between them—they don’t mesh. But that disconnect filters perfectly into these heartworn songs.
Like all of Doveman’s records—including last year’s excellent and sadly unavailable reimagining of the Footloose soundtrack—The Conformist will not demand your attention. It’s happy to shuffle away in its own corner of the room. But, almost in spite of itself, it will earn your attention. And it’s the kind of attention that lasts for quite a while.