It’s this helpless feeling; suddenly the murder of thousands of innocent people is at the fingers of a four-year-old — I’m talking about President Bush right now. And you have to start moving away from it and turning to other things, like nature.
— Devendra Banhart
One possible reaction to your home country electing an extremist president who uses tragedy as an excuse for murder abroad and repression at home, all the while proclaiming himself to be the epitome of moral goodness, is to escape into the woods, take drugs, and dream some distance between you and reality. That seems to be the case with Dear Nora on their second full-length, Mountain Rock. On their debut, We’ll Have a Time, Dear Nora was a trio with a jubilant pop sound. Here it’s mostly Katy Davidson alone with her guitar, sounding sad, weary, and especially contemplative. “Here we come around again / The state of our lives”, she sings on one song, pondering what comes next. The answer is to play “music of the spheres / See it from all sides”. Sadness spawns creation and new directions, and Mountain Rock is both sadder and guided by a more experimental approach than Dear Nora’s previous recordings.
“I know it’s gonna be a strange time / Well it can’t possibly be any stranger than the present / Cause now it is said there’s a change / And I sense the change in me”, Davidson sings to begin the album, succinctly pointing out the way external events resonate within people. She imagines her depression as a wild animal or a border that’s impossible to cross, taking a first step into the wilderness imagery that dominates Mountain Rock.
Mountain Rock‘s songs are both internally and externally focused. Davidson repeatedly sings about feeling out-of-step and trying to figure out what to do next, generally deciding on art or trying new things as the answer. Yet she also finds nature to represent a truth greater than her personal worries (“Mother Nature” is thanked in the liner notes). Clouds, mountains, trees, and animals aren’t necessarily benevolent forces here; they often represent her pain as much as the future, yet they also seem to stand as the gateway to the universe. On the title track, the music the wild world makes — “mountain rock” — overshadows her own thoughts and songs to illuminate greater truths. There are moments when she finds herself so flattened by it all that all she can do is whimper an ode to animals (“Caribou, Timberwolf”).
The core of Dear Nora’s songs is pure pop melody, beautiful yet wonderfully simple. That’s as true on Mountain Rock as ever. But there’s also a melancholy that threatens to anchor the take-flight melodies to the ground. And there’s a spaciness here and there, epitomized by the way the album’s most radio-ready song, “Give Me Some of Yr Love”, leads into the odd instrumental “West Nile!!” — where Davidson’s guitar sounds like insect’s cries — and then the head-in-a-fog trip “You Are a Bear (For a New Friend)”, essentially Davidson slowly repeating the title phrase, like a solitary wilderness survivor trying to make sure her voice still makes a sound. Throughout the album, instrumental interludes reinforce the altered-state mood, with out-of-tune guitars and vaguely voiced melodies sung to match the guitars.
The hazier textures of Mountain Rock‘s songs hint toward transcendence but also darkness. The haunted feeling behind the album comes to a head near the end with “Suicide Song”, which feels like a gorgeous plea for us all to escape into the river or up the mountain, until you realize that she’s seeking an escape that’s fatal. On Mountain Rock, it isn’t the last word, however. The final track, “Love Song for My Friends”, ends the album with a song that’s filled with affection but retains a sad tone. “I’m not clowning around when I say I love you”, Davidson sings like a jazz crooner, presenting a tender alternative to the suicide and obliteration that haunted several of the songs before it. “Instead of death, let’s party with our friends” is the message that Dear Nora’s wilderness odyssey ends with. It might sound simple but it’s not. And despite the goofiness of it (she calls her friends “dudes”), it’s a gentle wish for connection over destruction that ends Mountain Rock on a hopeful note.