The new album from Mare Berger (who uses they/them pronouns) begins tentatively, with the violin, cello and viola strings scratching lightly and non-musically as if to recreate the haunted sounds of another world. But soon, Berger’s piano chords come in, bringing in the welcome sounds of humanity. Berger’s voice cuts through the air and on this opening track, “Even When We Forget”, they begin to break down the album’s theme of interconnectedness: “We are the winter’s quilt / We are the poet’s tongue / We are the roots of a tree / We are its leaves falling.” The chorus drives the point home. “Even when we forget we are, we are.”
The Moon Is Always Full is a song cycle about the moon, loss, wholeness, and our interconnectedness. Berger reminds us that we are whole, even in moments of fragmentation. The album’s instrumentation greatly aids the purity and directness of this theme. Berger sings, plays piano and guitar, and is accompanied by a string quartet, a pair of additional vocalists, and Ilusha Tsinadze on guitar and voice. This organic, baroque approach gives the songs a great deal of clarity – a full orchestra or traditional “rock” approach would likely dull the impact of the compositions – but there is nothing stuffy or haughty about the presentation. Berger’s gorgeous voice is a sympathetic one, and the songs, despite whatever weighty baggage the average listener may have about “song cycles”, are breathtaking and occasionally downright catchy.
The “connectedness” Berger writes about is applied, among other things, to their nonbinary gender, as in the song “Already Whole”, which uses the moon as a fitting metaphor. “I am more than what you see,” they sing. “When I am red, I’m still gray / When I am gone, I’m still there / When I am waning, I am full / I am everything at once.” The lunar theme continues in the almost-title track, “The Moon Is Full”. A little darker than the rest of the album, the minor-key ballad includes Berger’s piano meshing beautifully with aching strings, and a hypnotic coda (with the line “I pray that the seed will grow” over and over) bringing the song to a dramatic conclusion.
While Berger’s piano anchors most of the songs, “Praise This Fear” is a bit of a departure, with knotty acoustic guitar providing the instrumental base. The song is one of the emotional high points in an album positively chock-full of them. Sounding at first like a sort of spiritual hymn, it eventually picks up speed as the guitar’s intensity builds ever so slightly. But Berger’s voice, which manages to sound both lilting and soaring, provides a gentle consistency, and the song never veers off course. “Wondering” also provides some interesting anomalies, as the strings occasionally provide some striking atonal moments, and Tsinadze’s electric guitar picking recalls Nels Cline at his jazziest. “Flames in the west-wind, dissent in the breeze,” Berger sings over the daunting accompaniment. “I keep a-wondering when we’ll be free.”
The Moon is Always Full concludes with “You Are Within”, and as the instruments coalesce more than ever before, both the music and lyrics drive home the album’s theme of unity and interconnectedness. Vocally, it’s a duet between Berger and Tsinadze, and while it could be interpreted as a love song, the connection can be both romantic and human. “I heal for you, I heal for me / I hurt for you, I hurt for me / We never end, we never start / In this short breath, we’re all we’ve got.” The writing and recording of The Moon Is Always Full may pre-date COVID-19 and social distancing, but Mare Berger’s beautifully executed themes of connection are an eloquent reminder that we are, in fact, all one.