William Fitzsimmons knows heartbreak. His confessional folk music has frequently explored the challenges of love, and he’s taken on the task of working through the end of his second marriage. His 2018 album Mission Bell navigated the separation itself. Now he returns with Ready the Astronaut, a record born out of realizing that reconciliation wouldn’t be possible. Rather than simply recount his experiences, though, he looks at the myth of Icarus, finding new insights into the story and using it to reexamine the difficulties of relationships.
The frame of the album provides its greatest strength. With at least two codes in place – the Icarus myth and Fitzimmons’ recent autobiography – the songs warrant repeated listening to connect all the dots. Fitzsimmons wisely avoids mapping the Greek myth as an allegory for his own experience, leaving room for interpretation and emotional experience rather than simply suggesting a series of keys to use. The title track could be read as coming from Icarus, leaving the line “I’m never coming home” as a morbid bit of finality. Taken as part of the real world, the line (and the song) offers a less totalizing sort of escape, a way out.
That sort of idea recurs as the album closes with “To Love Forever”. Fitzsimmons imagines a version in which he can move on. Icarus might drown, but at least he’s experienced flight first, allowing the songwriter to consider the value of intense experience, even if it ends in a crash. Fitzsimmons isn’t fully convincing here in his logic, but his optimism does win out. He reconsiders promises made earlier in life (and in the album), looks to forgive, and moves on. The resolution satisfies, both formally and emotionally, and coming through the divorce (or the failed Greek flight) allows some light to penetrate a dark time.
Track-by-track, Fitzsimmons creates some wonderful moments. The album, though, could use more musical variety. The singer’s steady, hushed voice allows individual lines to carry great weight, and the low-key music usually provides the proper setting. The album’s oddity is that it remains so even-keeled throughout its reflections (the tension developed throughout “Ready the Astronaut” is a welcome exception). The artistic choice provides calm after a crisis, but it also hinders the potential ups and downs. It wouldn’t make sense to take the listener on a rollercoaster, but adding more dynamic variance would keep the album more engaging and more effective.
Even so, Fitzsimmons’ artistry in exploring two stories with nuance and creativity keeps the album interesting. Given the difficult subject matter, he manages to find honest reasons to move forward. There’s no pie in the sky here (it would melt), but his assessment of the risks and rewards of love, the effects of failure, and the fear we have to overcome makes for a smart and insightful record. As Fitzsimmons moves forward, it’s easy to wish him the best and even to feel like that may be exactly what is yet to come.