Don’t expect a career-changing overhaul on Hymnal, the fourth proper solo album by Benoît Pioulard (né Thomas Meluch). The adjustments this Seattle dweller makes from record to record are just that—so incremental as to be nearly unnoticeable. What helps to color the album and set it apart are the images that Meluch evokes in a several different ways. For instance, the titles have overt and subtle religious connotations; they are referred to as “chapters,” as in a tableau or a book of hours. The album was written and recorded largely in England and throughout Europe, and Meluch seems to have been swept away by the beauty of European ecclesiastical architecture. (Meluch himself was raised Catholic but was “never especially pious”.) And on the cover, we have a most intriguing photo: a black fungus eating away at a centuries-old tree that’s still happily growing on an artist’s estate.
Meluch frames the record as a sort of meditation on faith vs. society, as though they are opposing forces, and how devotion provides succor in an uncertain and discomfiting world. Is the black fungus on the cover meant to represent society’s trappings—parking meters, credit card debt, text messaging—attempting to destroy the verdant garden of faith that lies within us? Does society balloon like a fungus while piety remains strong, if dwindling? If I hadn’t known the photo’s subject, I would have said it looks like God, as depicted in 14th and 15th Century Italian Renaissance art. The textures in Benoît Pioulard’s music have the same cracked, ancient quality as the egg tempera paintings commissioned long ago by the Catholic Church. If anything, Hymnal is more stone-like, dour and majestic than his last three solo records, the sonic equivalent of an old cathedral adorned with triptychs and murals.
For an album that extols faith as a solace-inducing phenomenon, Hymnal does not provide a terribly comfortable experience. (Cathedrals are great spaces for prayer, but not so great ones for spending the night.) Minor keys abound, and the fuzzy surfaces sound less like silken cloaks and more like layers of dust and patina—closer to The Caretaker than My Bloody Valentine. The two lengthy ambient pieces, “Gospel” and “Knell”, are not particularly serene; the former is a pipe organ’s wail to the heavens, and the latter recalls The Sight Below’s purple and black guitar drones. It may be that Meluch is implying that faith isn’t easy and involves some struggle, or perhaps he is conveying the moody atmosphere of Southeastern England, where he spent much of his time as the record came to him. In any case, Hymnal is not a light listen, and may require one’s full emotional attention to reap its rewards. If you’re feeding the meter and sending a text message as you listen, Hymnal will probably feel like a chore and a bore.
Give yourself up to it, however, and it is often affecting. “Mercy” has a—yes—hymnal quality, with Meluch singing beautifully from the pews over an aged organ. When I heard the Eastern European guitar on “Reliquary”, I pictured a weary traveler stumbling into church for a much-needed session with the divine. The gossamer gypsy folk song “Excave” provides a brief, blissful moment in the clouds, as mellifluous as anything Bibio has written between his acoustic folk and hip-hop phases. (The bit of warped guitar at the beginning of the track seems to be a nod to him.) The songwriting—once a weak spot in Meluch’s skill set—continues to show steady improvement, with a better sense of flow and progression. Though I hear him taking a few more small risks and doing well with them, I wonder whether something has kept him from making a truly amazing album. I’d love to see him step out from behind the curtain a little more, perhaps to hear his music and his awesome singing voice unencumbered by those fuzzy textures he uses so liberally. Whether or not that happens, Hymnal succeeds both as a piece of music and as an instrument for soul-searching and reflection.