The music on Old Fire’s Voids is slow and unsettling, like folk music from a location devoid of hope. The project, headed by composer and producer John Mark Lapham, utilizes a variety of musicians to bring his bleak soundscapes to life. While only half of these tracks have vocals, the weathered baritone voice of Bill Callahan, who appears on three of them, essentially defines the sound of the record. Callahan’s singing seems simultaneously weary and strong, the lyrics portraying men who are beaten down but not broken.
Callahan doesn’t arrive right away on Voids, though. The album begins with an instrumental prelude called “All Gone”. Lapham’s soundscape builds gradually, with quiet shimmering sounds that merge into tinkling piano notes, string drones, and soft brass instruments. There isn’t a melodic center to the two-minute piece. Instead, it’s mostly ambience that swells and then starts to fade before making a hard cut into “Blue Star”, with Emily Cross on vocals.
“Blue Star” is sonically very different from “All Gone”. Cross slowly croons over sparse electric guitar notes for nearly a minute before dynamic drums and static bass tones join. After the song’s halfway point, a whole ensemble’s worth of instruments enters. Piano, saxophones, and trumpets add up to a cacophony’s worth of sound, while Cross never wavers in her singing. “Blue Star” is interesting from a musical construction standpoint, but it’s not particularly memorable melodically, and Cross’s lyrics feel more like part of the sound collage than the point of the song.
That is not the case with the third track, “When I Was in My Prime”. A string drone opens the song, but Callahan comes in immediately after, singing, “When I was in my prime / I flourished like a vine.” Unlike with Cross, Lapham is making Callahan the star of the show here. The music stays highly minimal, with only a quiet, slow violin joining the drone, focusing on Callahan’s story of his youthful love and current regrets. After several stanzas, Callahan takes a break, and drums, upright bass, and electric guitar enter for a musical interlude. Well, technically, it’s the end of the song, but it pushes right into the next one as Callahan starts singing again.
“Corpus” begins with Callahan asking, “Hey Mac / Could you bring that boat back?” Once again, the backing music is minimal, although this time subtle organ chords join the droning strings. He repeats, “I’ve got a child in Corpus,” and asks the initial question again several times. It gradually builds, bringing more instruments in as Callahan sings, “And I love you more / Than any version / Of the future / Is for certain.” Instead of fading away this time, though, the strings, drums, and bass stick around until the end. They add a haunting atmosphere as Callahan finishes how he started it, asking, perhaps futilely, “Hey Mac / Can you bring that boat back?”
Keeping with that general mood, Callahan’s final appearance is on “Don’t You Go”, originally by John Martyn. Martyn’s lyrics are about the anguish of powerful people sending young men to fight in wars where they inevitably end up dead. So it’s perfectly in keeping with the mood of Voids. Lapham keeps the arrangement simple, with quiet piano and only occasional string swells joining Callahan’s measured vocals. “Don’t you go / Don’t you go, my son” is a simple sentiment,but it’s very effective in this context.
Vocalists Adam Torres and Julie Holter are on hand for “Dreamless” and “Window”, respectively. “Dreamless”, for its part, feels appropriately dreamy. It kind of drifts along with a slow but recognizable pace, approaching the feel of a pop song as Torres coos in falsetto. Holter, in contrast, is covered in a layer of digital gloss, giving “Window” the odd feeling of Daft Punk-style vocals over an Old Fire song. It has the same barely-there drums and bass (very) gently, providing a backing tempo. This time, Lapham delivers a more robust instrumentation, adding saxophone, harp, flute, and more during the song’s middle section.
Voids closes with a quartet of instrumental pieces, “Void I-IV”. Each of these tracks moves and develops quite slowly. Lapham describes his mindset in the album’s press materials: “I was feeling the brunt of a relationship ending and the emptiness it left behind. Over the course of compiling the album, I lost both my parents, and the pandemic started. These recordings were born out of that loss and that isolation. The title Voids was a natural fit.”
The glacial quality of these pieces is reminiscent of Sigur Rós if they were raised on American folk music. Old Fire get at the empty feeling Lapham is trying to convey, although maybe not without the prompting of his description. The final track, “IV: Circles”, does attempt to bring some light into the music. It starts quietly and develops slowly over seven minutes, gradually adding instruments and sounds. Those sounds get brighter as the song progresses, giving it a much more positive ambiance than most of the album. It never does coalesce into an actual melodic tune, however. Instead, it’s content to portray just a wafting daylight mood.
Voids is not an easy listen, but it’s an intriguing one. Callahan’s deep weariness fits the record’s overall mood and gives it an anchor. Voids may not make listeners sit up straight and fiercely connect, but allowing the music to wash over you several times brings out the beauty in Lapham’s bleak vision. The audience for downer, abstract folk music may not be massive, but those attuned to the style will likely find a lot of value in this album.