The Heavy Blinkers’ Health faces unusually high expectations. First is the standard set by the previous release, The Night and I Are Still So Young (2004), an album so well executed that it could plunge a band into a crisis over the question of what, if anything, remains to be accomplished. A second source of anticipation is likely an outgrowth of that question. In the near-decade since The Night and I Are Still So Young, the Heavy Blinkers experienced the departure of every founding member except one, Jason Michael MacIsaac. Add to that history the press notes’ promise of “a haunted epic” that was seven years in the making and Health is an album that needs to deliver in a big way—lest MacIsaac face the reality that he lost those many years to shifting sands. “Perfect Tourists”, a song near the middle of Health, provides a portrait of the artist in this position, with lyrics declaring, “My sweet, it’s sad the options we had were desertion or surrender”.
Persisting despite these conditions, MacIsaac has created the Heavy Blinkers’ masterpiece. Lyrically, his observations have something in common with the poetry of Robert Lax. In The Circus of the Sun, Lax writes, “Love had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a sphere of love in the void”. Health likewise finds meaning in the tension between inevitable loss/emptiness and the quixotic desire to keep marching toward that which makes life worth living. The many characters who inhabit Health are united by their search for human connections and renewed purpose. Like roving soldiers or ghosts unaware of one another, they lament lost love, or wander empty streets, or fight wars without end. They seek not victory, but deliverance.
While exploring these themes unavoidably creates a pall, the brilliance of Health is found in the way MacIsaac chooses to deliver them: Seemingly limitless melodies that take improbable detours yet are never less than satisfying. A trio of lead vocalists (Jenn Grant, Melanie Stone, and Stewart Legere) seem beamed in from another decade, their earnestness avoiding the prevailing insincerity of so much contemporary pop music. And above all, there are ornate musical arrangements and a sequence/structure so well designed that they create in the listener the same emotional cycle that the album’s characters are experiencing. On “Call it a Day”, a bittersweet affirmation that appears early in the song order, the vocalists proclaim, “This song’ll breach your hull like a cannonball/that drops you in the sea”. There is perhaps no better (and certainly no more dramatic) way to succinctly express the effect of the album.
Other modern pop travelogues (by the Fiery Furnaces, Sufjan Stevens, Decemberists, etc.) combine wide narrative scope with wild musical dexterity, but Health‘s tastefully deployed baroque pop proves to be the ideal foundation for MacIsaac’s expressionistic character sketches. As a songwriter, he favors stylistic consistency to undue experimentation. The result is a particularly focused album simultaneously free of filler and overflowing with characterization. Pop music history is littered with delayed albums that were likely made duller with each attempt to salvage a losing prospect. But Health is a rare exception, so refined that the delay seems justified or beside the point. It joins SMiLE, Odessa and Deserter’s Songs in the tradition of albums whose realization far outshines their checkered gestation.
// Notes from the Road
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