Ex-Varnaline frontman Parker masterfully explores 21st-century isolation, loneliness, and freedom on an ambitious two-disc set.
Between his one-time day job band Varnaline (admittedly on hiatus since 2001's Songs in a Northern Key), a team-up with musical kindred spirit Jay Farrar (2006's Gob Iron project), and a steady solo career, beginning with 2004's Tell It to the Dust, Anders Parker has had a busy decade, albeit one barely acknowledged outside the ranks of former No Depression subscribers and chroniclers of northwest US indie rock (though he now calls Vermont home).
Here, at the end of the Aughts, Parker's in a contemplative mood -- even by his standards -- taking stock of what the past ten years have wrought with Skyscraper Crow, a two-disc rumination on 21st-century loneliness and human connections. Even before you take the CDs out of their sleeves, you can tell Parker's m.o. by the liner note photos: he's the Will Oldham lookalike, sitting next to an empty chair in a spartan room, thousand-yard stare pasted to his face. Fortunately, Skyscraper Crow isn't the mopefest that that description conjures. In fact, it sounds like what would happen if Neil Young recorded Trans and Old Ways as a double-album. Do with that description what you will, but know that Parker is in total thematic command on Skyscraper Crow.
Parker breaks up his album title and 20 songs into two halves: the gleaming, electro-Americana "Skyscraper" and the spare, folky "Crow". Over 69 minutes, Parker repeatedly stresses that loneliness is what you make of it. Just the word "skyscraper" spurs thoughts of progress, the future, cubicle farms, disconnect from the ground, and throughout the album's first half, Parker nails the antiseptic vibe: "Reflections of you / Reflections of me," he croaks on "Glass and Mirror Strays". He sets "Infinite (Us)" at an airport -- also shorthand for isolation and impermanence -- and fills the song with synth and airplane whooshes. And disc one centerpiece, the cavernous "So Far Away", offers Parker's thesis: "Information was flying by / But I can't compete or fathom why". Sound like any society we're living in?
Parker breaks up with New York City, the place he also once loved and called home on disc one closer, "Farewell Old Love" ("I'll miss your chaos... but I will not miss your concrete soul / It's cracked and full of hate"), before hightailing it for the country, freedom, and "Crow"'s ten songs. Acoustic and more recognizable as Parker songs, "Crow" turns isolation into individualism and makes nature a place where real connections are forged between real humans ("Here We Are") and death is merely part of life ("In the Wind"), not something to be hidden from in a gleaming skyscraper.
It's more than a little depressing that our culture needs to be reminded of these things from time to time, but it's reassuring that the Anders Parkers of the world are there to keep us honest. While I hope he one day tops himself, right now Skyscraper Crow stands as Parker's career-defining achievement... to say nothing of being an uncanny mirror of what our culture is and what it can be.