From the first reverb-drenched notes of “Song for the Angels” I was hooked. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for stripped-to-nothing acoustic guitar. Blame Neil Young. Then, enter Tony Dekker’s voice, as soft and understated as Sam Beam’s and laced with the same wounded tone as Mark Kozelak’s. I’m sold; completely surrendered to the album. If the 42 minutes that followed this aching ballad were a disaster I still could have listened to Bodies and Minds three or four times before putting it down. Fortunately, for everyone this album isn’t a disaster at all. In fact, it may be one of this fall’s best. So good is this album that when I first sat down to write the review I was at a complete loss as to what I should write. These 11 songs from Great Lake Swimmers architect Tony Dekker are so compelling and magnificent that I had a difficult time grounding myself long enough to begin the review. I was completely in its grasp.
Bodies and Minds is the second full-length album from Toronto native Tony Dekker. While the first album, Great Lake Swimmers, was met with critical acclaim and laid the groundwork for what was to come, it is this sophomore effort that should demand the absolute attention of the music community. It isn’t that the Great Lake Swimmers are doing anything earth-shattering on this album. To be sure, they are working entirely within the framework established by generations of North American singer-songwriters. What makes this album so special is the near-perfect execution. Bodies and Minds breathes with the emotion of Dekker’s voice and pulses with the subtle beauty of his sparse acoustic arrangements.
In the spirit of his debut, Dekker again selected a desolate atmosphere to record. The debut was recorded entirely in a silo; Bodies and Minds was recorded entirely in a rural lakeside church in Ontario. This is less a side-note than you may initially think. The effect this atmosphere has lent to the music provides much of the character in these songs. The music sounds at once ethereal and intimate, like a specter wafting through open windows. On “Let’s Trade Skins” the drums sound as though they were recorded from a block away, while Dekker’s understated voice resonates like that specter of the past is hovering just over your shoulder. The effect is arresting.
It isn’t the only time that Dekker manages to create such a poignant moment. “Various Stages” is as sublime a folk song as you are likely to hear this year. The mid-tempo riff and harmonica sound as though they could have been plucked right from Harvest. In less capable hands, this could be an irreconcilable misstep. However, once Dekker enters with the lyrics, “I have seen you in various stages of undress / I have seen you through various states of madness”, his broken-hearted timbre completely inhabits the song, transcending any such thought. By the time he fully apologizes, “I am sorry I have nothing left for you”, I was so wrapped up in the song, I had dismissed my fleeting comparisons to Neil Young.
The added instrumentation on Bodies and Minds (spare as it may be) adds another depth to this album that was somewhat lacking on the Great Lake Swimmers’ debut. The players on Bodies and Minds lend a subtle craftsmanship to this album that shouldn’t be ignored. The title track actually borders on becoming a full-blown rock song, while “Falling into the Sky” benefits greatly from the voices of the London Community Singers. It isn’t just these two tracks that benefit. Nearly every time the subtle slide guitar and (highly underused) Wurlitzer surface on the album, the effect is spellbinding.
Bodies and Minds is a terrific album, one that will stay in heavy rotation throughout the winter months for sure. A more cynical reviewer (certainly I have been that at times) may dismiss this album on the grounds of being derivative. To that person, I would only argue that they have no soul. What is borrowed from the past is made new by the subtle grace of Dekker’s songwriting and the Great Lake Swimmers’ careful musicianship. Bodies and Minds deserves a broad audience and Dekker’s name deserves mention alongside Sam Beam’s as one of today’s most lauded singer-songwriters.
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