He aimed small, and it paid off big-time.
As a direct demonstration of how real life circumstances truly dictate the course of great art, Efterklang member Peter Broderick recorded the sparse piano reveries of his mini-album How They Are while recovering from a knee injury, seeking to scratch his creative itches while nursing his literal wounds.
By the sound of How They Are, you’d assume Broderick was in a considerable amount of pain. These six hollowed-out tunes are typically minor in key and major in theme, evoking oceans of sorrow with a compact, creaky piano drips and broad, blank melodies. The stripped-down template might come as a shock to Efterklang fans; there are no electronic bleeps or post-rock guitars to be found, but those familiar with his folky 2007 album, Home, shouldn’t be too put-off by the simplicity of these arrangements.
“Everybody seems so sad/And it’s makin’ me heavy”, Broderick sighs in a boomy, breathy, closely miked baritone. “Sideline” opens the disc with a shockingly vacant landscape, Broderick penetrating the deep-space silence with a haunting acapella gospel melody -- it’s difficult to remember a song that utilizes negative space so effectively. And at the same time, it’s challenging to recall an album cover that so perfectly reflects the music inside -- overcast skies and snow-covered streets threaten a seemingly ordinary suburb, perfectly encapsulating Broderick’s broad musical brushstrokes.
The songs are based in familiar settings (singer-songwriter ballads, folk weepers), but there’s something decidedly alien and slightly foreboding about the chilling sparseness. There are no big bursts of drum kit or huge choruses or fits of guitar crunch. There’s no pay-off. We’re just visitors looking through a glass pane into a hospital patient’s room. We’re peeping toms watching a couple’s first dance on their living room floor. We’re disconnected from catharsis, dangling from a cliff of emotion. Broderick teases us with flits of melody but never dunks our heads in it, keen to let us stifle our feelings in the sweeping dances of his damper-pedal.
How They Are is intended as a stopgap album, meant to satisfy his audience while he works on a more “full-fledged” follow-up. But it’s hard to imagine he’ll come up with something more striking than this. He aimed small, and it paid off big-time.