Rebecca Foon has managed to take what could have been a narrow exercise in chamber music and crafted something with real emotional depth and scope.
It's in some ways surprising to learn that A Common Truth, cellist Rebecca Foon's second album as Saltland, is about climate change. Surprising not because the album lacks anything in darkness or dread -- it carries both in abundance -- but because it feels so personal, its atmosphere so cloistered and internal. For most, climate change is a concern kept at arm's length, an abstract problem for some other time, some other place, some other person. On her latest effort, however, Foon seems to recede to a distant, unlit corner of her own psyche, allowing the music to grow unfettered in the ambiguities of the unconscious. She conceives of her subject in broader terms than your typical political discourse, and as such the material never seems to take place out there somewhere but rather in an aching, frightening within.
The album is composed of four instrumental tracks and five featuring Foon's hushed alto, her vocals murmuring just beneath subtle loops and the superb, sparse cello arrangements. The overture "To Allow Us All to Breathe" kicks things off with mournful, processed hums that recall the likes of Fever Ray. Before the listener can subside completely in the gloom, however, Foon delivers what feels like a second beginning with "Under My Skin", a gorgeous piano piece that introduces us to her unadorned voice. On an album with such a spare and economical palette, the abrupt shift from spacious cello to bright piano is quietly startling.
Foon sings with all the weight of memory, a subtle mixture of nostalgia and regret seated alongside her hopes for the future. "I dream of you / What does it all mean? / I really don't know how I continue to try," she muses forlornly, the identity of the "you" remaining mysterious while adding an important relational dimension to the piece. While understated, Foon's execution is entirely self-possessed. She demonstrates a mastery of the paradoxical interplay between intimacy and distance, delivering a performance reminiscent of masterworks like Grouper's Ruins.
"I Only Wish This For You" and "Light of Mercy" traffic more in dread and tension than this plaintive introduction, directing the listener's attention more explicitly toward global and collective concerns. "How did we get ourselves here / Perpetual state of greed," Foon sings over an ominous organ line on the latter track. "Seems like we can't even ask the right questions." The theme of hope persists throughout the record, however, even on the darker tracks. In many ways, the album is about survival in the face of existential threats, and the little things we find to hold onto that guide us through. "I feel your laughter, your joy / It keeps me light," she sings on "This Other Place", again alluding to the salvation we can find in other people.
Each of the instrumental tracks is stunning, though none more so than the album closer, "Forward Eyes II". A tender, affecting duet between cello and violin, the track is one of the gentlest offerings here, a well of solace and a poignant, meditative reflection amid all of the preceding darkness. Even by the album's standards, it's a beautiful offering and a perfect way to conclude A Common Truth.
Rebecca Foon has managed to take what could have been a narrow exercise in chamber music and crafted something with real emotional depth and scope. She takes cues from sources as diverse as drone and freak folk while hewing devotedly to her core instrument. No matter your tastes and inclinations, you may be surprised just how affecting the album proves to be.