Tom Brosseau’s brand of folk music is deceptively uncomfortable. With last year’s Grand Forks, he crafted an album around the floods in North Dakota in the ’90s, with songs like “I Fly Wherever I Go” providing his patented high register and quiet acoustic guitar to tell stories of simultaneous woe and redemption. The tricky thing about his music — and its not different on the new Cavalier — is that its depth of sadness is not immediately apparent. The childlike wonder built into the nasal pitch of his voice manages to only highlight the hills and obscure the valleys, leaving us to trudge through the thick brush of these songs until we get to that clearing, somehow still dark despite being exposed.
And while Cavalier is nothing so cohesive as Grand Forks, it is still harrowing nonetheless. The sadness here is of a more one-on-one nature, tied to a relationship or a series of relationships — it’s hard to tell which — that Brosseau relates to us over ten songs. And if the emotion itself wasn’t threadbare and fragile, the compositions themselves are stunningly simple. More so than any of his previous records, Brosseau has stripped it down to the essential here, relying almost entirely on voice and guitar, with other instruments occasionally, and sparingly, mixed in. “Amory” is a good representation of the album. Its melody is nearly recognizable as traditionally folk, though Bosseau doesn’t take it and run. He’s happy to let that melody trail behind on a short, slack leash while he offers advice to the title girl. He says things like, “If you’ve got a bird, then you got to let it sing,” and shows us that his lyrics, like everything else here, are more complicated than they seem. This particular line reads like a bad fortune, but in the context of the song it is revealing not of Amory, but of the speaker. There is a demand for freedom there, a worry about restraint, that puts a crack in the advice to reveal a narrator’s solitary nature.
Later in the record, narrators — or the narrator — cling to objects new and old to remember their best times, and the pain swept in in their wake. There are brass rings and locked safes and Reverend Horton Heat shows that paint a picture of people that aren’t just living in the past, they’re immersed in it. “My Peggy Dear”, maybe the best song in the bunch, is a straight goodbye song, complete with a girl looking through a screen door. And while it seems hackneyed, Brosseau lets himself get lost in the tiny details, the things the breeze slides through, and really pushes his voice here, emoting more than any other moment on the record.
Cavalier, on the whole, is a very immediate record. Brosseau’s voice is way up in the mix, so that it sounds like he’s singing right into your ear, and for the most part that production touch works. However, it does make the weak songs seem all the weaker. It renders “My Heart Belongs to the Sea” a bit tired and unbelievable. It makes “Brand New Safe” feel ambling, since the guitar is barely there compared to the vocals. But for any misstep on the record — and there aren’t many — there’s a rebound, more hills than valleys. “Committed to Memory” is the most driving track here, full of low notes and percussion that makes the accumulation of artifacts in the song all the more worrying, even sinister.
It is not easy to follow up a record as successful at being a cohesive concept album as Grand Forks was; for whatever reason, that often ups our expectations for the artists. But Brosseau sounds here like he made the record he wanted to make, and if it lacks an immediate cohesion, it achieves a growing feeling as you listen to it. A feeling that is hard to pin down or put a name on, but is imbedded way down in these deeply human songs. That sort of feeling trumps cohesion any day.