Wouldn’t it be nice if life were fairy-tale simple? Wouldn’t it be nice if the sun shone every day through stay-puff cumulus clouds that drifted sleepily through the benevolent blue sky? And indeed, wouldn’t it just be super if, when darkness and doubt ever dared to creep into the picture, you could close your eyes tightly and wish it all away?
That’s the world that Summer Hymns aim to evoke. On Clemency, their third album, lead singer and songwriter Zachary Gresham gently pleads with the listener not to look too closely at the unsympathetic universe. He entreats us to let our vision blur, to conceive of a world where the mythology of suburban American childhood is all of humanity’s raison d’etre. He again and again wraps his warbly, perpetual-teenage tenor around trivial stories about baseball player idolatry and comically incontinent dogs, using his obsession with pastoral simplicity like an oversized, silky-soft peacock feather to tickle and tease the listener into joining him in his carefree world where the worst that can go wrong is never all that bad.
“This life that I live is alright, alright. this life that I live is fine”, he sings on the album’s closer. After listening to everything that preceded it, you know that he’s not being the least bit facetious. Everything really is resoundingly alright, and the forecast never varies. If darkness ever threatens to descend onto the orgy of ignorant bliss, such as on the feebly brooding “Trouble”, Summer Hymns treat it as a force to be resisted and escaped rather than explored. Which is why, in the end, Summer Hymns are little more than a Disney rotating mobile for indie-rock kids—the perfect auditory sedative for your neurotic friend who freaks out when he hits the bong one too many times. It’s just as well, really, as it is a role that Summer Hymns play superbly. Gresham and his band frequently sound just as luminously golden as the fat cartoon sun that fortifies their giddily benign world.
Clemency kicks off with Gresham singing over an acoustic guitar and a tinkling glockenspiel: “I could say, I declare, I could be anywhere”. Sounds alright, doesn’t it? Dissolve-in-your-mouth lyrical moments like that are littered throughout the album, with Gresham again and again ever-so-timidly intoning vagaries that, to be frank, are completely destitute of meaning. Take, for example, the following lines from “Upon Your Face”: “When you came the other day with that look upon your face / I could be the one to erase, lick those words right off your face”. Believe me, it makes just as much sense with or without context.
Before you think that I’m giving Clemency no mercy, let me make it clear that, despite its faults, it is by all means an ingratiating, eminently listenable album. It doesn’t take any getting used to, either—it sticks right away. So if you’re a fan of shambling folk pop, and you don’t expect much more than catchy melodies, honey-sweet vocals, and thoughtless lyrics about nothing much at all, then there’s a pretty fair chance you’ll find it well worth your money. And truth be told, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve had a couple of satisfying moments with it. One memorable listen occurred during a drive through a desolate road splitting Indiana’s sprawling bean fields, right around dusk. It was an especially good setting for Clemency‘s easygoing, slightly countrified stuff. But eventually, the dusk turned to darkness. It always seems to, doesn’t it? That’s what Summer Hymns seem to forget.
If, like myself, you prefer music that doesn’t seem totally disconnected from darkness; if poetry to you means more than slice-of-life stories that are flakier than falafel, then I suggest you stick with the Silver Jews or Smog; or even My Morning Jacket. All of these bands sound like what Summer Hymns might sound like if they ever admitted that, as Crowded House (believe it or not) has already told us, “Wherever there is pleasure there is pain only one step away”.