Ben Schneider of Lord Huron whispers, “There is a river that winds on forever, I’m gonna see where it leads,” the first lyrics on his debut LP Lonesome Dreams. It is a pretty and precious aside, a passing bit of commentary recast as a genre thesis statement. The album is a record of wanderlust in form and function. This search, like the record in question, channels both the aspiration and insouciance of chasing the infinite. The truth, the right girl, the right sound, all of it, Schneider suggests, is somewhere out there. Trafficking in globalized pop that borders on the neocolonial, Lord Huron often sounds relentlessly worldly, like a lost indie rock soundtrack to the Lion King, or an Enya record that emerged from the post-Local Natives LA folk scene, or, most flatteringly, a 20-years-later Rhythm of the Saints tribute album.
It’s no secret that Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams isn’t necessarily new territory — NPR’s Global Cafe cornered this market long ago, and Vampire Weekend, you could argue, ruined everything for everyone, becoming a reverent place-holder for all who used World Pop influences and an epithet for the long tradition of those who felt Paul Simon, being so openly and commercially derivative, tacitly supported Apartheid on Graceland. Ezra Koenig was cast as the next-generation Brown Shirt in the war to exploit those genres, and those people, who didn’t have access to the A&R staff at XL Records. Just how guilty were we supposed to feel about these stolen global influences, made by unapologetic and clean-cut white dudes, in our music collections? It wasn’t simply what “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Under African Skies” sounded like, it was what they stood for. If you liked your coffee trade fair, how could you have a miniature Berlin Conference in your iTunes? These were all first world problems. The search was still out there, and pop grew more global, not less. Schneider cares little for this type of socio-political wrangling or the notion that his work as Lord Huron fits into a larger narrative about white people pulling their influences from 300-level courses in Ethnomusicology. In fact, Schneider is hugely gracious (in 2010 he sent all the bloggers who wrote about him in the previous year an exclusive cover of “Auld Lang Syne” as a New Years’ thank you) and draws on a tradition beyond Koenig’s Columbia-cribbing of Afro-pop, often suggesting his Michigan roots and love of the West drive his narratives. Undeniably, the soundtrack to these stories lies far beyond the Upper Peninsula even if their sense of pathos never quite leaves.
Carved carefully into the center of Lonesome Dreams is record about places and travel. Beyond the initial desire to follow an endless river, Lord Huron affirms a pathology of journey, a fetishisation of the search. On the upbeat single, “Time To Run”, Schneider gallops along with his arrangement, reminiscent of 2010 single, “Mighty”, singing lines like, “I’m going soon/gonna eave tonight, got a lot to do,” and “What’s a man to say? / They’ll be lookin’ for me, should be on my way.” The clap track and backbeat could easily be traced to Simon’s “Gumboots”, though Simon was wrestling through a troubled downtown taxi ride set against a zydeco slapstick. Schneider sends his search party wider, Simon’s taxi transformed into a geographic polygamy of being everywhere at once. On “I’ll Be Back One Day”, Lord Huron is back at this magically real project of coterminous geography, expressing desire to live “way out west” and in the “Land of Lakes”, referencing “sacred dunes” and “great big lakes”, before finally capitulating homeward with “I’ve been running a long, long time/trying to flee this life/but I can’t seem to leave it behind.”
Amidst all this global sound and restlessness, Schneider finds himself, essentially writing folk music, wishing for return. At the heart of “The Ghost on the Shore”, he sings, “I’m going away for a long time” as strings mourn his departure, carefully adding, “I was born on the lake and I don’t want to leave it.” This dialectic is fully fleshed out on the chiming “Lonesome Dreams”. The song opens with the same lyrical wanderlust, lines about breaking through the tree line, about being under a big red sun, about searching and searching and never finding anyone, but Schneider includes a late twist. He finally turns inward in a sea of existential questions (“the seasons change in the blink of an eye/and I watch as the planets turn/and the old stars die and the young stars burn”) assaying his surroundings, “but I don’t really know this place/and it’s lonesome here in the wide open space.” Lonesome Dreams emerges, a bit shadowy to be sure, as a record about returning home from the elemental, stylistic and genre wilds. It is a meditation as much about oikos as odyssey.
Lord Huron, like the endless river on which his debut began, returns to a tense relationship with infinity near the album’s conclusion. “The Man Who Lives Forever” features pounding drums and what sounds like sitar, the architecture of a discussion about death and dying, the title lyric expressing a sentiment that Schnieder later contradicts with the album’s most fatal lyric, “the journey to death is the point of a being.” Like these lonely dreams, and sacred dunes, red suns and empty roads, big lakes and sounds that emerge from all over the globe, the travel outward begins to circle back inside; life becomes death, every new road starts to lead back home. Lonesome Dreams sounds a lot like a kid from Michigan who ran to LA, who channeled Paul Simon channeling South Africa, Simon, who made falling out of love in a downtown taxi a sacred space. Lord Huron’s most successful trick is this last one, using the language of the infinite to describe his interior. The spacious becomes the intimate and that crunch in the gut, the need to move on, to move out, drives the kid born on the lake back to his watery kingdom, the Lord of everywhere else, but especially here.