With apologies to Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, Kristian Matsson, and the other great folk singers we’ve been heaping praise on the past few years, there’s something everyone needs to know. Zachary Cale is the best singer-songwriter working right now. Period.
His sophomore record, 2009’s Walking Papers, was a lesson in how to helm moody, even deathly, folk tunes without falling into insular despair. His finger-picking, his sweetly croaking voice, his keen eye for melody and detail; they all made for a record that haunted not only with its bittersweet feel but with its sheer, well-crafted beauty.
Noise of Welcome takes all the Brooklyn singer’s strengths and twists them into new bracing sounds. Following the Cohen-like, deadpan darkness of Walking Papers, Cale assembled some great players — Chris Brokaw, D. Charles Speer, and Anni Rossi among them — to craft an album of subtler shifts in tone. There’s still plenty of melancholy soaking into the fabric of these songs, but there are also glimmers of hope. This isn’t an ignorant bliss, a 180-degree turn from a dark past, but rather a hard-earned step towards the light. In that way, Noise of Welcome is both a surprising departure for Cale and a fitting sequel to his last record.
The brief, noisy prologue of “Dead Channel Overture” doesn’t bode well for that glimmer of hope, though. It is all-encompassing and foggy, something to surround you in doubt and obscurity, like some hangover from the last record. The song it shifts into, however, titled “Blake’s Way”, immediately sets new intentions for this record. Drums shuffle behind Cale’s guitar, voices coo in the background — more angelic than haunting — and guitars glisten over his dusty acoustic. “Come greet the dawn,” he pleads, “for it smiles upon the bed.” It’s a sweet, bleary-eyed start to the day, two lovers hopeful in the morning hours. Cale is still weary, of course, of what “may spring from beneath the cruel sky”, but rather than shut himself in to avoid a possible storm, he and his love push forward. “But let us laugh away care,” he howls out joyfully in the chorus, “for there’s nothing that is too much to bear.”
“Blake’s Way” is followed by the stomping “Day for Night”, and you might think Cale has left the heavy feel of his last record behind. His singing clears a bit and there’s a bracing propulsion to the song. Cale, though, refuses to settle on one tone, one texture, for the entire record. As it moves forward, Noise of Welcome shifts into softer songs and stark emotions. “Hello Oblivion” is, as the title implies, a little darker than its predecessors, but even as it embraces the possibility of slipping, it is also a song about working hard to leave behind all the trammels of self-destruction that might bring you to this point. “We Had Our Day in the Sun”, probably the best song in this excellent set, toes the line between nostalgia and loss. Cale broods over a drink, while he worries over when he and his lover “littered the road with what [they’d] begun”. Despite that grim admission, there’s something dreamy about the choruses. Backing vocals add a lightness to his voice, squalls of dissonance seem oddly comforting. In what is perhaps the album’s most lonesome moment, there is still some chance of reconnection. On Noise of Welcome we see the ending, we feel the loss, but Cale never lets us revel in it. There’s nothing self-pitying or sad-bastard about these songs. Cale can articulate the dark without giving in to its power, and that balancing act is what makes this album so strong throughout.
It’s also a bit reductive to call this a folk record. Surely Cale’s writing style recalls Cohen and Van Zandt and Prine and other folk giants, but this record expands his sonic palate beyond the trappings of that genre. “Mourning Glory Kid” is a gauzy pop gem, a nod to the Byrds at their most twangy and psychedelic. “Shanghaied”, on the other hand, is a dusty porch-stomper, while “Nocturne in G Minor” not only shows off Cale’s impressive guitar skills but mixes field recordings and atmospherics to make a startling and expansive instrumental piece that anchors the middle of the record.
Noise of Welcome is a perfect blend of styles and textures. By the time we get to closer “War Love”, it is clear this is a smart and heartfelt record about moving on. “You pulled me out of the tiger’s mouth / you cleaned me up and turned me around,” he sings, “to face…the burdens that I could not face.” The song swells with strings, building out of the guitar’s melody into something bigger than just Cale, something outside of himself, something brimming with possibility. If Walking Papers got mired in the darkness, Noise of Welcome is the path towards light. These songs heal not by ignoring past pain, but acknowledging it, accepting it for what it is, and willing it to heal. As sweet as the sounds Cale makes can be, his strength is in letting us see the sometimes bleak sentiments they represent.
That may sound sad, but its actually quite comforting in its own way. What is sad is the fact that so few people know about Zachary Cale. He’s got two classic records now that showcase his singular voice and the breadth of his sound. Noise of Welcome is an impressive achievement and one of the most heartfelt and beautiful records of the year without a doubt. It’s time we gave Zachary Cale the attention he deserves.