Music

Nico Muhly and Teitur: Confessions

Though it sometimes struggles to find balance, Confessions transforms the mundane into an elaborate Baroque fantasy.


Nico Muhly and Teitur

Confessions

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2016-10-21
UK Release Date: 2016-10-21
Amazon
iTunes

The confessions on Confessions, a collaboration between American composer Nico Muhly and Faroese singer-songwriter Teitur, are not of the sinful kind. Shock value and cheap thrills are eschewed in favor of creating beauty from the mundane, exposing unspoken thoughts and everyday secrets against a lacy backdrop of Baroque chamber music from Dutch ensemble Holland Baroque.

As a singer, Teitur has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and that vulnerability is a necessity to breathe heartstring-tugging life into free verse that borders on rambling at times. On opening track "Describe You", Teitur's thoughtful delivery lends sincerity and vibrant color to a stream of consciousness as he narrates a struggle to describe a woman on his mind. "I finally ended up describing you / As a movie I saw when I was a child / I think I was seven or eight or six / It was a movie about rural electrification," he sings, and as puzzling as it looks in writing, Muhly's soaring arrangements turn it into a celebration. With similar juxtapositions of elegant strings and grounded lyrics throughout the album, Teitur and Muhly paint picture after picture of jubilant infatuation, sweet longing, and melancholy mornings.

Specificity reaches a peak on cheerful ode "Printer In the Morning", where Teitur waxes poetic about the scent of his favorite computing accessory. "Forget about coffee / Forget about falling leaves / Or the smell of shampoo / It's the smell of my printer in the morning / That really makes my day," he rhapsodizes, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Just as engaging are slower tracks like "Cat Rescue", a wintertime lament about a cat who may be lost to high boughs forever, and "Small Spaces", a more abstract song that glides on languid chords.

Breaks from Teitur's singing come in the form of more exciting instrumental blocks where Muhly's compositions can take center stage and tell more open stories. While both "Sick of Fish" and "Dog and Frog" have vivid titles, the wordless pieces have plenty of scope for imagination, unlimited by Teitur's peculiar tales. "Her First Confession" is where all collaborators are at their strongest; understated, Teitur croons through about half of the song and lets Holland Baroque pick up the pace once his story is done. They make a smooth shift from melancholy to urgency, and the song stands as a high emotional moment within the work, a desperate climax.

Near the end, Teitur has a shining moment in the spotlight with "Don't I Know You From Somewhere", an optimistic observation of human behavior disguised as a musing on the life of a sushi roll. Teitur's acoustic guitar joins the orchestra for this penultimate track, and his sensitivity makes what could have been a tongue-in-cheek track one of the most naked, honest moments on Confessions.

It's not a faultless album, and fit between the collaborators can be an issue. At times, the lyrics and arrangements feel contrived, and the always clean but sometimes unsubstantial Baroque sounds fail to support overwrought sentiments. Good intentions back the more saccharine moments, but it doesn't make them any easier to swallow. As clever and painstaking as Teitur and Muhly are about when to simplify and when to go all out with elaborate music, it's a difficult balance to strike organically, and not every song quite hits that sweet spot. "Coffee Expert" is a particularly disjointed example, with Holland Baroque inflamed with high drama that Teitur's tender words simply don't fit.

In spite of the album's flaws, though, there's a pure understanding of humanity in Confessions, and while songs about printer smells and sushi kitchens can only go so deep, Teitur and Muhly have a shared sense of tone that creates a cohesive whole, and while both artists have more interesting works in their repertoires, their ambition and empathy make Confessions an album meant for people who care.

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