The twinkling, fairy-tale piano line that opens the first track of the Black Heart Procession’s sixth full-length album, simply titled Six, quickly gives way to the bloodless voice of Pall Jenkins (sounding wearier than ever, if that’s possible), who sounds as if he’s reading from a portentous letter when he talk-sings, “When you’re through with me / When your heart aches / When your head spins / When you tempt me / When you finish me”.
More than a song, “When You Finish Me” is an oracular statement of purpose. The Black Heart Procession have not lightened up, mellowed out, or, it would seem, enjoyed the benefits of quality anti-depressants since their last outing. If anything, they’ve embraced dread and misery more enthusiastically than ever. From the production values and sound engineering to the songwriting and performances, every fiber of Six is shot through with cold, hard despair. In other words, as has been the case throughout the band’s 12-year career, nothing much has changed.
And really, what does one expect from a band co-fronted by a guy named “Pall”? I don’t know if it’s Mr. Jenkins’ given name, but either way, it only follows that he would feel a certain obligation to bleakness. Of course, one runs certain risks when pursuing such a specific sound so unceasingly, and chief among those risks are A) boring your listeners, and B) sounding contrived. As it always has, the Black Heart Procession avoids the latter pitfall, thanks to the combined talents of Mr. Jenkins and his chief creative co-conspirator, Tobias Nathaniel. Their many years of experience in the music-making business have endowed them with top-notch compositional skills. Even when the songwriting is lacking, the duo makes up for much of it with unique arrangements and darkly engaging instrumental choices.
The mood on Six, as on past Black Heart Procession albums, is typically set by minimalist guitar grooves, ominous bass lines, slow-motion pianos, and haunted house organ notes. But the Black Heart Procession are concerned with more than just mood; they’re also craftsmen. When they’re in top form, as they are on the excellent second track, “Wasteland” — wherein a modest amount of hand percussion supplies an otherwise slow-burn goth number with just enough groove to get your toes tapping — they’re still pretty great.
The band gets their rocks off early on Six, following “Wasteland” with “Witching Stone”, an insistent piece of drum-driven goth-prog that you could almost dance to. Similarly sort of upbeat, at least rhythmically speaking, is “Forget My Heart”, which sounds like what might happen if Britt Daniel had geeked out over Poe instead of old R&B records. Here, though, like everywhere throughout Six (and the BHP’s entire discography, for that matter), the song is so steeped in unmitigated despair that you find yourself tempted to call “bullshit” on the band. How could anyone this unhappy and unlucky get out of bed long enough to write and record two or three albums about all of the bad shit that happens in their lives, let alone six?
In terms of sheer presentation, though, the Black Heart Procession has still got it. One could even make a convincing argument that Six is their richest, most fully-realized album to date. There is still something missing, but it’s hard to put your finger on. It’s not authenticity, necessarily; the band performs like it really believes life is a sequence of unfortunate events. Rather, it’s something like subtlety — an appreciation for the sublimation of feelings, rather than the their raw expression — not to mention a range for metaphors that extends beyond heaven, hell, storms, and rats. It’s strange to say, but the older the Black Heart Procession gets, and as their playing and instrumentation matures, their minds seems stuck in the past.