Listening to Varnaline feels like being trapped under the ice of a half-frozen lake. It's springtime and the crystals are crackling, breaking apart, occasionally sliding into the frigid water. The currents push against you, biting the skin and massaging it, as you slowly sink; nothing to hold onto except for the empty sounds splashing between your ears. Aptly titled Songs in a Northern Key, Varnaline's fifth release was written in the aching cold of Vermont and New York, before singer-guitarist-songwriter Anders Parker moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. Because of the remote locations, Parker recorded most of this sparse album without the help of regular bandmates, and although the sound is complete, an overriding sense of loneliness and isolation string the songs together.
The cover photograph is vast and pretty. A white water tower and street lamp hover in a large blue sky, as a cotton cloud smears across the page. The elements represented -- water, fire, air -- serve as metaphors for the organic fluidity of this album. The songs are about despair and regret, stars and dreams, fish and broken glass, but they contain the openness of air, the ache of water, the comfort of fire, the seasons, the years, night and day and the moments that evade both.
The album opens with the sound of a squeaky wheel-barrow being pushed across an empty gymnasium, or a tired carousel making its dazzling circles, although no one is watching. And no matter how many fuzzy guitars and crashing symbols are layered within the tracks, this emptiness is maintained throughout Songs in a Northern Key. The opening song, "Still Dream", is representative of much of the album. With the reverberating sound of being recorded in a cave, the song takes shape around a steady bassline and simple chord progression. Auditory snippets flower from the skeleton until it shifts into symphonic overlays, full of bells and an almost uplifting drum roll. Then it hollows out again, until all that is left is the song of a few birds. It is empty and melancholy, with a brief moment of triumph.
Each song flows into the next, and "Still Dream" tumbles into "Song", a heavier track that begins with thudding drums and a gritty guitar riff. A pretty melody floats above the distortion, creating a mood like Sunny Day Real Estate on downers. The songs gain energy as the album progresses, but they remain somber. In "Indian Summer Takedown", Parker laments, "Standing on the ledge / where the toes meet the edge / thinking of that day when things went right". He seems equally despondent on "Blackbird Fields", a song that begins with buzzing feedback and pulsating sonic waves, then shifts into acoustic strumming and lyrics like "Fell asleep on my feet / all good times / all good times washed away".
A few songs change pace without breaking from the flow of the album. "Blue Flowers on the Highway" uses slide guitar and organ to create an eerie roadhouse number, perfect for a David Lynch soundtrack. "Down the Street" is prodding and beautiful, comparable to Will Oldham in one of his more uplifting moments. And "Let it All Come Down" has a bigger warbled sound -- space-cowboy guitar work stands above a layer of garage fog and the intense cymbals of '60s psychedelic bands.
The album ends with the same echoing melancholy that it begins with. But rather than squeaking wheels, it wraps up with the twinklings of a lullaby being played on a music box. The box snaps shut and the album is over. The sudden silence that follows is shocking, but a few moments of quiet introspection are essential after listening to such an intense musical undertaking.