[4 June 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Since form tends to follow content, it’s no surprise that break-up albums tend to sound, well, pretty broken. And there’s an appeal in that for listeners, since most of us have been in that vulnerable moment and, if we’re honest, take comfort in not only the commiseration, but also in the chance to milk that feeling for all its worth. The fact that a brittle and frail album like Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago caught on is no real surprise.
But what about break-up albums that don’t sound cracked and broken? Sure, the acerbic lyrics are unsettling on Blood on the Tracks, but isn’t the smooth, built-up folk Dylan lays those words on a little too clear-eyed? Isn’t the tight, sharp sound of the record as unnerving as Dylan’s barking on “Idiot Wind”? The full-sounding break-up record certainly works against expectations, and that someone would strive to make hurt sound so complete and so beautiful can set you on edge in unexpected ways.
And that is what William Fitzsimmons does with The Sparrow and the Crow. No, it doesn’t match up with Blood on the Tracks, but it has its own thorny ambitions. Fitzsimmons has a lush folk sound that swells throughout this album, expanding as he sings about post-divorce carnage. But as whispery and faint as his voice can be, he rarely falls into the easy trap of fragile folk to lead us to the hurt. Instead, there’s the lush piano balladry of “After Afterall”, or the pastoral shuffle of “They’ll Never Take the Good Years”. “If You Would Come Back Home” and “Further from You” are brooding folk-rock thumpers, while “Find Me to Forgive” is heavily orchestrated piano-pop.
All these sounds are subtle shifts in Fitzsimmons’s basic but fully realized folk sound. He does sometimes take things down to just piano, as on “Even Now”, or the simple keys and guitar interplay of “We Feel Alone”. But these songs never crack or split or show their seams no matter how quiet they get. There are no holes between the notes, no crackle in his voice. Even when Fitzsimmons sounds most beaten (“You Still Hurt Me”), he’s trying to make it sound as beautiful as possible.
And that unnerving attention to detail musically lays a foundation for Fitzsimmons to wander through just about every emotion you’d associate with a big break-up. On “After Afterall” alone, he runs through earnest loss (“I still love you”) to lust (“I still want you”) and then to desperation (“I still need you”). He confesses his role in the break-up on “I Don’t Feel It Anymore (Song of the Sparrow)”, only to later act irreparably wounded on “You Still Hurt Me”. He spends parts of the album begging forgiveness, or hoping for a reconciliation, while in other spots he sounds tired and resigned to the relationship’s failure and solitude.
And his exploration of these contradictions isn’t all navel-gazing. Priscilla Ahn sings with him on a few tracks, most notably on the beautiful “I Don’t Feel It Anymore (Song of the Sparrow)”, and is a solid foil for Fitzsimmons, equal parts wincing pain and clear-eyed resolution. They both sound like they’re earnestly reaching out, but there’s a wall up between them, as if in the end they can only manage to sing at each other instead of with, or even to each other.
And the way Fitzsimmons tangles these contradictions and unfinished feelings together is what makes this not just a good break-up album, but his good break-up album. Its commitment to a lush, full sound is both what makes the album effortlessly beautiful, and subtly chilling. Because a crisis that hurt you so deeply shouldn’t be rendered this completely into song. The Sparrow and the Crow may be populated by broken things, broken feeling, and broken people, but as an album it is stubbornly, and smartly, unwilling to show its own cracks.