Ages 21 & Over
A Bowery Presents Event
At its heart, Hundred Acres -- the third full-length album from Wisconsin singer/songwriter S. Carey -- finds him grounded comfortably in his skin, but still with one foot in the stream. More direct than ever, there is a wellspring of confidence in this new batch of songs that lays bare the intricacies of life while keeping its ideas uncomplicated.
Trained in jazz, Carey’s astute musicianship has never been in question nor taken for granted, and the execution of Hundred Acres’ new ideas is seamless. He intentionally unburdened himself from a more complicated instrumentation palate for these ten songs, and, in effect, this modification to his approach brings the content of the work much closer to a living reality. By giving equal status to the indifference of nature and the concerns of a material world -- while employing more pop-oriented structures instead of the Steve Reich- or Talk Talk-ian repetitions of his past work -- a new balance is struck that creates something unique. This in turn provides equal status for the feeling that created each song, and the feeling each song creates. Almost impossibly, there is more air between the bars; Carey and his contributors sway like treetops in the wind, remaining flexible enough that they never threaten to break.
Thematically, the album is a poetic treatise on what is truly necessary in life, a surprisingly utilitarian art project that underscores the power of enduring. The simplification of songwriting didn’t arrive out of thin air; it came from the similar desire to reach for the utopia of simplicity, for daily life to be unburdened of anxiety and tethered by love. It is a way to say that returning to a more simple life, if even just a little, can heal wounds and mend the cracks. This is leadership by example rather than intervention, and for Carey, it starts at home.
In a way, these are his Kodak moments: dedications to his family laid out as songs and reminders that life, like music, has a profoundly ephemeral quality. One way to keep it is to let it flow over you. The challenge is the balance between holding on and letting go, and Hundred Acres is a master class in the trying. As a serious artist entering his prime, Carey presents these songs perhaps more like a Gerhard Richter Florence exhibition of masterfully over-painted photos than an ad hoc collage on the family fridge. They are at first easy-going with a wide-open front door, embracing simplicity in structure and lyrical straight-forwardness, then suddenly hopelessly beautiful, revealing, and breathtaking.
Perhaps no song better illustrates this ethos than “More I See,” an exultant and strummy, snare-on-three gratification piece. This is echoed by Carey, who says, “The best way to understand this song is through the lyrics ‘When I’m naked, deciding…no I ain’t surviving,’ meaning you can just live to live.”
“Yellowstone” highlights Carey’s storytelling. As he describes it, “Just drive and see where you end up, get lost with the one you love.” The lyric “We should lose our way before we lose our minds” speaks to this immediacy by essentially saying “all we have is now, what are we waiting for?”
On “Fool’s Gold,” Carey’s signature minimalism is intact with an acoustic guitar serving as the backbone, propped up ever so slightly by ambient keys and a lilting slide. The song showcases the newfound difference between writing on a guitar versus a piano, as he has traditionally done in the past. Says Carey, “This song is what started the whole record…everything came out of it and the vibe it created.”
Storylines aside, let’s be clear about one thing: Sean Carey’s voice may not hit with blunt force at first, but when it creeps up on you -- and it will -- a soulful range is revealed, with a reedy, singular quality that extends above the clouds. If you’re unconvinced, look no further than album standout track “True North.” Here, Carey recites lyrics as vows while he recounts the late hours of his first date with his wife. It is a lucid love song to his family life, highlighted by the chorus, “Only upright will I be.” As Carey says himself “How can you write a record and not reference love?” Laid out over spare but lush-sounding instrumentation and an uncommon phrasing within the 4/4 structure, this is Carey’s musicianship and intention in a happy marriage, his heart and head securely in concert.
From subject matter, to title, to artwork (again photographed by Cameron Wittig), Carey puts the finishing touches on this sprawling vision of a reality-defining naturalism with the title track, offering these lyrics as an actionable treatise on sublimity:
all we need
is a hundred acres and a row of seed
all we need
is a hundred acres and some room to breathe
There is an almost seditious beauty to it. As if to say, “If you want a better world, you either do something about it or see through it.”
For as comfortable and confident as Carey is, a thoughtful questioning of reality remains as his driving source of inspiration -- an attempt to creatively process the highs, lows, and all of the moments in-between with the help of musical processes. The moments between moments don’t just stand for something; they are everything. And like all great art, they provide further possibilities, personal interpretations for the listener. Simply stated, over the course of three albums, two EPs, and a few one-off singles, S. Carey has proven to be a reliable source of beauty. It’s a safe claim to make that something so reliably beautiful can also be called enduring. In an era when the shelf life of art is typically measured in minutes, this accomplishment puts him in a rare group of artists, seemingly unconcerned (but not indifferent) to passing trends.
Written over the course of a few years, in between touring schedules and the growth of his family, Carey recorded, mixed and produced Hundred Acres at home and in various studios in rural Wisconsin with support from his longtime collaborators Zach Hanson, Ben Lester, and Jeremy Boettcher, as well as new contributions from Rob Moose (yMusic), Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens) and Sophie Payten (Gordi).
On the farm in rural Australia where Sophie Payten - AKA Gordi - grew up, there's a paddock that leads down to a river. A few hundred metres away up the driveway of the property named "Alfalfa" sits another house, which belongs to her 93-year-old grandmother. The rest, she says, "is just beautiful space. And what else would you fill it with if not music?"
And so she did, first tinkling away in her hometown of Canowindra (population 2,381) on the out of tune piano her mother had been given as a wedding present, and then on the acoustic guitar she got for her 12th birthday. As it turned out though, space wasn't a luxury she'd be afforded for long. At the school she went to just after that same birthday, she shared a dorm room with 26 other girls, listening to Aled Jones on her Discman at night to drown out their chatter. Not that she minded. "It was like a massive sleepover every night," she says. And besides, her love of music didn't take long to follow her there.
Gordi's first foray into songwriting came in the form of performances at the school's weekly chapel. She'd tell her friends they were written by other artists to ensure they gave honest feedback - though given she was pulling lines from One Tree Hill for lyrics about experiences she was yet to actually have, that feedback wasn't always glowing. It wasn't until she started writing about what was happening around her, the friendships she was building and, as is inevitable in the tumult of growing up, breaking, that the chrysalis of the music she's making now - a brooding, multi-layered blend of electronica and folk, with lyrics that tend to avoid well-trodden paths - began to form. "I often find that writing about platonic relationships," she says, "can be a great deal more powerful than writing about romantic ones."
"Heaven I Know," the first taste of Gordi's debut album Reservoir, is an example of just that. With the breathy chant of "123" chugging along beneath the song's sparse melody and melancholic piano chords, "Heaven I Know" gazes at the embers of a fading friendship. "Cause I got older, and we got tired," she sings, as synthetic twitches, sweeping brass and distorted samples bubble to the surface, "Heaven I know that we tried."
"I have a really close friend, and she moved to New York last April," explains Gordi, "and I was absolutely devastated. I sort of don't have anyone else like that in my life. A few months in, it was just getting so hard, we both had so much going on. Amongst all this, I had a really vivid dream - not that we fought dramatically, I simply got older, and we stopped calling each other, stopped writing to each other and we slowly grew apart. I was struck by the tragedy and simplicity of it and how it happens to everybody at various stages of life. With a friendship, you almost throw more at it than you would a romantic partner, because when a friendship breaks it's so much more heart-breaking. So it was sort of like we'd thrown everything at it, and in this alternate reality that I dreamed about, we just gave up."
The ramifications of loss ripple throughout the album, which the 24-year-old wrote and recorded in Wisconsin, Reykjavik, Los Angeles, New York and Sydney during snatched moments while finishing a six year long medicine degree and international touring commitments. Payten produced two of the tracks herself ("Heaven I Know" & "I'm Done"), and co-produced the rest alongside Tim Anderson (Solange, Banks, Halsey), Ben McCarthy, Ali Chant (Perfume Genius, PJ Harvey) and Alex Somers (Sigur Ros).
"Long Way," on which her contralto vocals are layered on top of each other as the sound of a ticking clock lurks underneath, begs of someone, "Can you hear my voice in your bones again? Can you be with me like you were back then?" It's the first track on the album, and the last song she wrote in the green notebook her parents gave her when she was still at school. There's a sense of loss too on "I'm Done," though this time it's something she's come to accept. "It feels good to say I'm over you / and mean it more and more each time. / Lock my secrets behind open doors / 'cause without you I'll do just fine." It's about as close to a stripped-back acoustic song as Gordi's willing to create, though it sits comfortably alongside beat-heavy electronic numbers. Her songs shift and mutate just as you think you've got a hold of them. You're as likely to hear the squeak of her finger sliding down a guitar fret as you are a shuddering sample, and an organic trumpet sound will be injected with a jagged vocal loop.
But it's not just loss which comes under the microscope in Reservoir. More so, it's the journey that particular theme takes when aboard the vehicle of time. The interaction of time and loss is explored throughout, starting with album opener "Long Way". "Myriad", a delicately layered track which reaches a drumless climax, delves further, "Dissolve your sorrow / In my skin and bone / Take my tomorrow / It is yours to own". Even the infectious single "On My Side" questions the prolonging of grievances because of a hesitation to communicate, which ultimately stems from a fear of loss. "Can We Work It Out" similarly opens up on inner conflict.
Boiled down, the running thread of the album is its lyrics, the importance and impact of which cannot be understated. "Lyrics to me are everything," says Gordi. "Music is kind of what encases this story that you're trying to tell. The music is obviously what makes people fall in love with a song first, but what eventually speaks to people, whether they know it or not, is the actual words that are being said." Gordi's lyrics are stark, honest and soul-searching, which are elevated by the album's intricate and careful musical arrangements. Like the contemporary artists such as Fleet Foxes, Beth Orton and Laura Marling as well as "the trifecta" of Billy Joel, Carole King and James Taylor that she listened to with her mum growing up - she's unafraid to sit in contemplative melancholy. It's what the album title is about. And in the contemplative melancholy remains a conviction that manifests itself through Gordi's memorable melodies and ambitious production, mastered by pioneers like Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens and Sufjan Stevens.
"The name Reservoir, it's that thing that you can't describe, that space that anxious people would probably live their life in. It's actually an expression my friend and I use. If I'm really down one day, I'll say, 'Oh I'm a bit in the reservoir today'. You're mulling everything over, and you're sitting in all these thoughts and feelings. In order to be able to write a song I need to go to that place, but I couldn't live a functional life if I spent all my time in there."
Writing music, in fact, is the way Gordi lifts herself out of the Reservoir. "Writing music has always been and will remain my therapy, my process and my way of communicating," she explains. "I don't write songs by someone else's prescription, I write to fill my own need. I get this tightness in my chest, and nothing will make it go away other than trying to write lyrics or sitting down at a piano and playing it, and it's like a medicine. If I have a good session of that, then that tightness and that weight just totally lifts. It just centers me, and gets the things that are riddled through my mind out on paper. And then I can leave them there."