“Welcome to adulthood / You picked a special time to be alive.” So sings Sean Cronin on the title track of the third album from Very Good. The biggest challenge facing anyone writing about this unusual-yet-lovable album is that there’s little to no direct frame of reference from which to draw. The press release describes Very Good as “Avant Americana”, and I suppose that’s as close as you’ll get to a label here.
Cronin is a formally trained double bassist, but his musical path has covered a hugely diverse range of territory, from classical piano training to country music gigs to punk rock to theatrical scoring. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s this multifaceted approach to music that has inspired the utterly unclassifiable nature of his Brooklyn-based outfit, Very Good. A multi-instrumentalist as well as a highly accomplished songwriter, Cronin plays bass, guitar, piano, percussion, and banjolele on Adulthood. He is joined by a group of musicians that lean heavily on a cracked hybrid of traditional folk, indie rock, and ragtime jazz. Imagine Beck covering Randy Newman, or perhaps Neutral Milk Hotel aping the Beatles.
“Into the Sun” opens Adulthood gently with tentative acoustic guitar fingerpicking and Cronin’s near-whispering lines. “Springtime began / Inside a man / A little sprouting seed / You take me in / And will begin / To end it if we need.” Evan Arntzen’s clarinet eventually joins in, as the subtle Nick Drake vibes add an unexpected, yet welcome element. The first rule of Very Good is that there really are no rules. But the banjolele and low-end brass leanings of “Turpentime” give the album its first taste of indie rock influences, as the song’s sneer offers a counterweight to the lilt of the “Into the Sun”. Bursts of lead guitar and odd false endings give off the feel of a band on the verge of collapse, even when the song suddenly shifts in the last 30 seconds into a grungy, garage rock stomper.
Seemingly unable to sit still within the confines of one particular genre, Cronin infuses “Without You Around” with imaginative orchestrations, as the ebb and flow of the strings and the rudderless arrangement are exquisitely dreamlike. Along those same lines, “Light’s Refrain” – perhaps the high point in an album that’s full of musical peaks – is both hugely ambitious and disarmingly intimate. Strings, a cappella harmonies, an odd rainfall backdrop – the entire piece sounds like the Decemberists covering Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle while tripping on LSD.
While Very Good’s soaring musical flights can evoke imaginative film scoring or, dare I say it, progressive rock for people who hate prog rock, a song like “Tree Dreams” swoops in, a shimmering, hallucinatory slice of psych-folk that seems comparatively grounded. A foot-tapping thump anchors the campfire folk vibe before the song veers into a more ruminative middle section and eventually returns to the song’s original feel.
“Daisies around your head / When you were young / You’re having fun / You’re on the run,” Cronin and Kate Foster sing on the whisper-quiet folk ballad “Falling Dreams”. “Don’t know that it’s the end /When you’ve begun,” they continue. True to its title, Adulthood – an immensely accomplished work of art that gets better with each listen – is about moving through life and growing up, accepting all the twists and turns that come along with it. But with all these detours and ups and downs comes an innate sense of freedom and acceptance of one’s self. Cronin expresses these freedoms lyrically, but more importantly, from a musical perspective as well. The eclecticism and variety within these truly stunning arrangements are an indication that we all contain multitudes. Sean Cronin has found a way to express these multitudes, and we’re all the better for it.