Ben Seretan Brings on the Catharsis with 'Youth Pastoral'
Ben Seretan's first "album of songs" since 2016 sees him exploring and questioning love and faith, with spectacular results on Youth Pastoral.
28 February 2020
Equal parts meticulous and free-form, the music of Ben Seretan can be difficult to assess. His compositions and performances are often suffused with deep emotion and can be easily classified as cathartic experiences. His latest album, Youth Pastoral, is his first "album of songs" since 2016's Bowl of Plums and finds the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist moving along the same vibrant path he's been treading for the past several years, both as a solo artist and a former member of the jubilant post-rock outfit Duchampion.
Not surprisingly, Youth Pastoral is full of openness, honesty, and emotional marks that are hit with disarming frequency. There is a comforting, life-affirming feel to the album as if Seretan is your experienced, reassuring guide through the nasty shit we all have to wade through. "1 of" serves as a welcome introduction. "Filled to the brim with something fine," Seretan sings over electric guitar picking and subtle smears of effects. "One spark and I explode." The song's intensity builds significantly over its brief run time and ends abruptly, making room for the eclectic styles to come.
"Power Zone", the album's second track and first single, is a dramatic shift – at least in tempo – and sees Seretan easing into a loping, comforting quasi-ballad with an organic, 1970s singer/songwriter template, full of engaging guitar work and sumptuous harmonies. It almost sounds like a track Neil Young inadvertently left off Zuma or On the Beach. Assisting him on vocals on this song and throughout the album is sculptor and friend Devra Freelander, who lost her life last summer when she was struck by a truck while cycling in Brooklyn. Freelander's vocals would be a welcome component of Youth Pastoral without knowing of her untimely passing. Still, an awareness of her tragic fate gives a unique, resonant weight to the album (which Seretan dedicates to her memory).
There are many moments on Youth Pastoral – as on much of his previous work – where the sound is deeply reminiscent of gospel, although not necessarily as a means of spiritual, churchgoing worship. Seretan did grow up as a Christian in his native California, and this album tends to focus on "falling out of love with God", as he writes on his website. But that loss of faith has been replaced by something deeper.
On "Holding Up the Sun", Seretan allows the music -- syncopated hi-hat, melodic bass lines, sustained harmonium - to simmer around the vocals until everything goes quiet at the halfway mark. Seretan then begins murmuring a graceful mantra: "Everything's gonna be all right / You shine a little light for me" over and over as the music build and builds and additional vocalists join in the chorus. This type of crescendo is typical of Seretan's mastery. Here he creates an emotionally resonant moment and pairs it with a unique arrangement. His music manages to tug at the heart as well as please the "songcraft" geek in every listener.
Seretan's voice is a multifaceted instrument, capable of both sweet, falsetto-tinted crooning and raging snarl – the latter mode oddly reminiscent of Billy Corgan – often in the span of one song, such as in the epic, ebb-and-flow of "Straight Line". A song like "Call Out Your Name" is a wonderful vocal showcase, a fragile, moving ballad with beguiling saxophone work from Dave Lackner (who also plays to great effect on "Power Zone").
On an album that contains so many high points, it's difficult to point out a centerpiece, but one likely contender might be the album's second single, "Am I Doing Right By You". As explained in the press notes, the "you" that's being worshipped here "alternates between a flawed lover and a flawed god". "She's my good luck and my bad luck driving me around," Seretan sings over gently strummed chords. "I could feel you pulling away when I tried to pray." The chorus is simple yet underscores the duality of the subject matter: "Am I doing right by you, oh my god?" As if to drive home the primal urgency of the struggle, the song collapses into a chaotic coda while Seretan sings "oh my god" over and over while his guitar thrashes away, until it eventually retreats in exhaustion.
Youth Pastoral closes with the majestic, almost hymn-like "Bowing Cypress", recorded on a phone in a New Jersey motel room. Accompanied by prickly, primitivist guitar picking reminiscent of Daniel Bachman or Joseph Allred, rattling tambourine, and a droning harmonium backdrop, Seretan delivers his vocals in a mystical, almost jazzy manner that sounds like he's channeling Van Morrison at his most mystical. Spectacularly talented, multifaceted, and seemingly brimming with melodies and concepts, Youth Pastoral sees Ben Seretan as one of us – struggling, questioning, reflecting – and filtering it all through music that soars and inspires.