The music world is rife with songwriters who sing about the importance of saving the planet. Nearly all of it is well-intentioned, but some of it carries more weight than others. If you’re Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, listeners will pay close attention to your words, and with good reason. She’s widely recognized as one of the most compelling Indigenous voices of her generation, lecturing and teaching across Canada and the United States, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba, and writing six books, including the acclaimed novel Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (named a best book of the year by the Toronto Globe and Mail). Simpson doesn’t practice “tourist activism”, and what’s even better, her music combines her deep love of the planet with rich, textured melodies and instrumentation. Theory of Ice, her latest album, proves this time and time again.
Theory of Ice is Simpson’s first album since last year’s Noopiming Sessions and on it she joins forces with bandmates Ansley Simpson and Nick Ferrio, as well as producers Jonas Bonetta and Jim Bryson. The result is a dramatic, deeply eloquent, and musically rich celebration of the earth and one of its most precious resources: water. On “Break Up”, the album opens elegantly, in an almost anthemic manner, documenting a lake’s spring thaw. As on most of the record, Simpson speaks the verses – opening with the lines “I step over watery edges / He pulls the canoe over the ice” – and sings the choruses. This song – and several others on this beautiful, compelling album – bring to mind another gifted Canadian singer/songwriter and activist, Bruce Cockburn, particularly his 1988 song “If a Tree Falls”, where the dangerous act of deforestation is detailed in dramatically spoken verses, and the soaring chorus is sung, full-throated.
Simpson crosses over the Atlantic to Iceland, where the song “Ok Indicts” occurs. The title refers to the Ok glacier in Iceland, which was declared dead in 2014 due to climate change. “I saved shards of hope / In my sky blue coat,” Simpsons sings, “I saved drops of light / You paved paradise,” as acoustic guitar and an urgent 4/4 beat lead the way. Simpson is joined by John K. Samson (of The Weatherkans) for a duet on “Surface Tension”. It’s a song containing much of the album’s dramatic urgency and allows the listener to appreciate the beauty of water and nature. “The river only goes one way / And you can’t get lost,” they sing, “These are simple stolen moments / And we love when we are able.”
One of the most striking moments on Theory of Ice is the one cover song, “I Pity the Country”, written by Willie Dunn, the late Canadian singer/songwriter and Indigenous activist. As the band burns slowly, Simpson recites Dunn’s words as an incendiary protest poem: “Police they arrest me / Materialists detest me / Pollution it chokes me / Movies they joke me.” Simpson’s sheer elegance on her own songs is countered nicely by Dunn’s slightly more direct approach, creating the perfect combination of angry, urgent activist art.
Theory of Ice closes on something of a hopeful note. “Head of the Lake” offers the conclusion that love and the importance of human relationships can move mountains and create real change. “We made a circle, and it helped,” Simpson sings. “I hold your hand without touching it.” Saving the planet is indeed a Herculean task, but through her music, poetry, and teachings, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson makes it somehow seem within our grasp.