[6 March 2011]
The words “quiet place” can evoke several different scenarios. There’s the silence of the library, punctuated by the ruffling of pages, patrons talking in hushed tones, and the soft conversations of the librarians. There’s the stillness of the woods, with the wind blowing through the trees, birds chirping their songs, and the scattered noises of other critters small and large. And then there’s the tranquility of the church, where the absence of noise takes on an almost physical sense of a vacuum, so that one can meditate and reflect in order to summon some kind of higher spirit. The extreme quiet of acoustic singer songwriter Alexi Murdoch’s new record suggests this kind of holy silence. Compared to Murdoch, Sufjan Stevens is a shouter and Arvo Part’s Estonian snowscapes resemble Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”—and Murdoch’s music recalls both Stevens and Part in its self-conscious spirituality.
Perhaps this evocation of church is not accidental. While as far as I know Murdoch does not embrace any particular religion nor has he been born again, the subtly intoned lyrics offer traces of Christian idolatry. Consider the hauntingly beautiful “Some Day Soon” that begins, “I love my father and I love him well / And I hope to see him some day soon”, and then morphs into “And you know that mother I’d be lying / If I didn’t tell you I was afraid of dying”. Is Murdoch singing about God the father, mother Mary, and the meaning of life, or is he singing about some more archetypal and mythic parents, or even his own ma and pa? The answer is not clear, but on a very real level, who cares? What matters is that Murdoch gives a heartbreakingly lovely performance.
Murdoch recorded the album in a single night in Vancouver back in 2009 while touring North America. He took the tracks back to New York City and fleshed them out with the help of Brooklyn hipsters Jon Natchez and Kelly Pratt (Beirut) and Kyle Resnick (The National). Although the term ‘fleshed out’ is not quite appropriate for an album this sparse. More like, these musicians added shade to shade.
Still, one cannot imagine a less hip record than this. Not only is the disc extremely quiet and the lyrics religiously affected, the melodies also move at a glacial pace. But for some perverse reason, that makes this extremely hip in the same sense that the latest records by Kanye West, Janelle Monae, and Joanna Newsome are—Towards the Sun takes big risks and puts it all out there. Murdoch takes the opposite tack than this trio by stripping everything down, rather than creating an overloaded soundtrack, but he is just as ambitious in his own way. The disc is only a paltry seven songs that clock in at 37 minutes. Yet this too is a daring move, as he has released so little music over the years.
Murdoch sings about a “Slow Revolution” on this disc, and indeed that’s what he does here. He understands the importance of taking an unhurried approach to life. “Noah’s crazily chipping away at his ark / While all of us ready ourselves to go into the dark”, he sings. Murdoch, who spends much of his time on a wooden sailing boat like Noah, realizes change happens fast enough. Life is short. All of it matters.
Each of the seven tracks offers the same lesson. We are free to walk towards the light or live in the shadows. The choice is ours. No one can make it for us. Listen to that still small voice inside, like the one you hear on the record. You will know what to do.