The title This Dream of Life recalls Kath Bloom’s hard-to-track-down 1994 album It’s Just a Dream and its stunning title track, where life starts to feel like a dream, and not necessarily a good one. This Dream of Life’s opening title track begins with a similar pessimism about our world. In 1994 it was, “the whole world is for sale / everything is going stale.” Now life is a prison where everyone’s competing to break out first, and lying to each other in the process. “This dream of life / is not for the faint of heart.”
In 2017 Kath Bloom’s voice can be as sublime as it was two decades ago; it wavers with the same mix of uncertainty and peacefulness. But aging has added more gravity to that wavering, which in a song like “This Dream of Life” drives the visceral edge deeper into our guts.
As a folk singer performing with the ubiquitous acoustic guitar, Kath Bloom may seem a relic of another time. But there’s nothing here that’s era-dependent. This is present-tense folk music of no era. Or every era. And the passing of time itself is always part of the fabric of the thing, as it was in Before Sunrise, the 1995 film where two maybe-lovers who have limited time sit in a record booth and listen awkwardly, tenderly to Kath Bloom sing.
That moment was sweet, and Kath Bloom’s music is full of sweetness. But it’s a strange sweetness, like in life. The sweet and tender moments on This Dream of Life are complicated, and never far from sadness, terror, and deep uncertainty. Mainly about people, how we act and how we treat each other. Human failure is everywhere — mistakes, lies, betrayal. On “I Just Can’t Make It Without You”, Bloom builds a desperate love song on it. “You can do me wrong / I’ll do it back to you” — that’s the story of love. “How Can I Make It Up to You” is related, with Bloom leading a group singalong around the slipperiness of forgiveness and rectitude. There’s little chance for true closure – “Whoever said love heals is sorely mistaken”.
There’s a lot of saying farewell on this album. If not a break-up album it at least seems like a farewell album. Those farewells hurt. But lingering behind them is the ultimate farewell. “Reminds Me Of It” cleverly starts out like a break-up song, but then you realize the “going away” she’s worried about is death. So the song becomes a poetic litany of things that remind her of death: “thunder of a summer storm, our favorite actor in fine form, oh! Your kisses sweet and warm”. The song describes sadness but is sung and played with a certain optimism, or at least sweetness, built from resignation. There’s a hovering synthesizer that I imagine is wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.
Kath Bloom uses repetition on that song and several others, taking the first verse and making it the third as well, or almost a chorus. If that tactic strikes any listener as lazy, it’ll strike others as brilliant. There is an aura about Kath Bloom that I know, from experience, hits different listeners in starkly different ways. A voice that cuts through time and space, to the heart, for some, is grating to others. Her guitar playing’s simplicity can come off as transcendent or rudimentary. That multiplicity could be seen as a fault of her music, but it strikes me that multiplicity is essential to her songwriting and performance. This Dream of Life is particularly open to multiplicity — it might even be a driving force behind the album. These songs are about human flesh and bones but gather in the stars and their dust; they write human weakness and eccentricity into mythology. The personal becomes the apocalyptic, on songs like “This Love Has Got a Mind Of Its Own”, one of the most devastating songs in her discography.
The way the songs all fade out is important to me. It feels like her singing will go on forever, even as its dying, the way the human race seems eternal and about to perish.
The brief final track, “Baby I’m the Dream You Had”, returns to the idea of a dream, and this time people are dreams, moments are dreams, everyone and everything is evaporating. And there’s different kinds of dreams — the ones you think you can escape on and those that end up escaping from you before you can get a handle on them. “Baby I’m the dream, and I’ve floated by”, she sings, embodying the ghostliness of us all. Earlier in the album, on “Let’s Get Going”, the spryest and maybe lightest of the songs, she turns this same human disappearing act into a call to action — “Let’s get going even though what we’re knowing just keeps on blowing clear out of sight.”