Sea Wolf’s eagerly anticipated fifth LP, Through a Dark Wood is an unabashedly honest portrayal of emotional struggle. Alex Brown Church, the musician behind Sea Wolf, says the album was conceptualized during a period where “everything was decidedly not okay”. He is quick to add that everything is better now, but the period of agony was pivotal. Church began writing the album in 2014 but scrapped it after realizing it was disjointed. More importantly, he failed to convey the pain accurately. Church demarcates a time when he was not faring well yet striving to heal. Through the Dark Woods suggests a journey built on adversity, all the while leading Church towards a more joyous and restorative space.
One of the markers of Sea Wolf’s musical style is his ability to craft each song as if it was a unique story. With a background in film, Church’s eye for mise-en-scène is evident in his music. “Moving Colors” and “Under the Spell” are cinematic in their construction of a setting with both artfully devising emotion. He frequently emphasizes plots featuring characters moving through arcs, eventually arriving at conclusions. For instance, the juxtaposition of “Blood Pact” and “Break it Down” capture characters amidst a specific point in time. Both narratives allude to robust history the listeners aren’t privy to. For Church, the past isn’t the focus. Instead, he enshrines the present moment. The hardship is unequivocally prominent, but the dysfunction also leads to catharsis. The resolutions aren’t always satisfying, and Church often denies closure simply because reality often denies closure.
But before Church heals, he adroitly uses Through the Dark Woods to document the pain he first experiences. The anxiety in “I Went Up, I Went Down” is palpable. The lyrics exhibit Church nervously moving around his home, checking the mail, putting on the tea kettle, checking his hair in the mirror. This puttering is the physical manifestation of his suffering. He is lost and aimless; the repetition of the refrain, “I didn’t want to know”, evokes a self-soothing mantra. But the lyrical energy doesn’t match the music’s spirit; the gentle cadences swirl and calm, a foreshadowing of the peace Church will finally find. Uncoupling the lyrical and musical effect is a tactic he revisits in a “Fear of Failure”. Whereas the lyrics project his disquietude, the instrumentation cultivates serenity. Church includes sweeping strings to create a softness accentuating the track’s honesty. Here Church reminds himself he has “to be brave / Even though I’m still afraid”. The artist’s bravery is undeniable, his resilience inspiring.
Literature is central to Sea Wolf’s oeuvre. “Frank O’Hara”, for example, ponders what the poet and writer would have thought about the legalization of same-sex marriage. O’Hara, a gay man, often depicted queer culture in his work. Repositioning him in the contemporary moment is a definite acknowledgment of the poet’s influence. Moreover, Church adopted his musical moniker from Jack London’s novel Sea Wolf. A fitting text as both the novel and musician examine the psychological as a method for expanding consciousness. In the case of “Forever, Nevermore” the development of awareness is challenging and often mired by trying to forget the past while being “filled with remorse and regret”. When Church’s voice ascends to sing “push you away”, he magnifies more vulnerability and intimacy than heard on previous projects. Through the Dark Woods is discreet about the messy past, but this is a necessary tool in letting go.
Through the Dark Wood holds space for psychological transformation. Church’s masterful illustrations of vulnerability and adversity affirm grief as a step towards growth. It is precisely these moments that garner strength and enables the artist to find power among the anguish. The album is beautiful in its sensitivity. Through a Dark Wood is a stunning portrait of psychological struggle and testifies to Church’s abilities as a songwriter to convey raw emotion.