Back when Lou Rogai’s project Lewis & Clarke released its first full-length, 2005’s Bare Bones and Branches, the songs were lush and bittersweet but they were also bluesy, with a sort of intimate shuffle. Since then, Rogai has used every release to expound upon the melting edges of those songs. 2007’s Blasts of Holy Birth and 2009’s excellent Light Time EP followed, and those were records awash in narcotic haze and even grander compositions. There was still the hushed rootsy center, but the elements pulled at that center and tangled up in great swaths of beautiful, sometimes impressionistic, sound.
And now, after a long wait, Rogai and company is back with Triumvirate, and the expansion continues in new ways. The album runs for over 70 minutes. The first track, “Eve’s Wing”, cracks the ten-minute mark. But before you start thinking of expanded jams, Triumvirate actually subverts the expectations of the typical epic song. Rogai turns the focus back to the intimacy at the heart of his early work, but imbues it here with a more muscled sort of grandeur.
“Eve’s Wing” has shuffling drums holding up the soft picking of the guitar. Rogai’s vocals get doubled and echoed by backing vocals. Verses start in basic structure and stretch out and twist over the song’s playing time. The strings come in and sweep through the track, lifting it off the earth a bit without letting it float away. But what’s remarkable here is how ten-plus minutes feels so structured, so compact. It’s a song that threatens to erupt into dramatic crescendos, but never does. Instead, the elements tighten their relationship to one another, and as Rogai finishes the song, singing of being swept away to the ocean, the cymbals sound like crashing waves, the strings like whipping wind, Rogai’s vocals like the wandering voice caught amidst it all. The elements don’t pull apart for an easy breakdown but instead tie together to drive the scene, the emotional moment home.
The record is full of this kind of concentration somehow housed in grand compositions. The title track provides a beautiful interplay between nylon-stringed guitar work and crystalline piano phrasings. Rogai peels back the reverb and lets his voice resonate high and true in the mix, and the wandering continues stuck between worry, when “our water spill[s] on dry desert sand” but we push forward driven by “the pull of mystery.” The music stops and hollows out at these dreamier lines, the lines where the inner life confronts the outer journey, but then drums kick back in and we trudge forward parched, sweetly tired. “The Turning Sky” has a sort of Cohen-esque stillness, accentuated when we get just one violin to start before the other strings come in, one rippling keyboard. Late songs “The Ride” and “Ascensionist” are both big, and play with the same sort of spaces, but they also show that there’s at least a touch of pop sensibility at play. The rundown piano that accents the chorus on “The Ride”, the whispering verses leading into high lonesome beauty on “Ascensionist” make these the most resonant songs because they are also, for lack of a better word, incredibly catchy. They bring to light the careful but deep melodies that drive the best of these songs.
It’s an effective mix of intimate vocals and borderless yet fully formed compositions for a record that so often melts the line between observer and observed. The voice in these songs is so often fascinated by land, water, mountains, birds, but we also hear of those same constructions inside of that voice. We hear of the space between the eye and what it sees shrinking. And there’s a calm comfort in the way people in these songs get lost in their surroundings, not to flounder or scurry about to find the path, but rather to forge a new one through the high winds or the thick brush. It’s an album about discovery with no real endgame, about not finding yourself but rather about embracing some larger, more perpetual search. There are spoken-word moments and children reciting stories about oak trees that may feel a bit too on the nose for this kind of record, but that’s only because there’s so much subtlety and nuance to the best parts of this album. Triumvirate is the kind of album that can transfix you, and if it’s epic in its delivery, grand in its scope, it is still — like the other Lewis & Clarke records — first and foremost intimate and inviting, a bittersweet space to get lost in along with the players.