Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One man's loss is the world's gain.

Evening Hymns are no strangers to Ear To The Sound readers. Back when I started this blog (over 4 years ago, yikes!) with the whole "A is for.../ B is for..." conceit and didn't know what this blog would become, the E was for Evening Hymns. Though it never got its own blog entry, Spirit Guides - the debut album under the Evening Hymns moniker - was #15 on my Top 20 of 2009 post.

"Cedars" from Spirit Guides served as a primer to what the sophomore record, Spectral Dusk, would be like and how heartbreaking and heartbreakingly beautiful it would prove to be. The new album - like that song from the first record  - was written in the wake of the death of Jonas Bonnetta's father, and serves as a meditation on grief, loss, and memory.

On The Line Of Best Fit, Bonnetta went through a track-by-track examination of the roots of this album and explains how even the wordless field recordings that open and close Spectral Dusk are connected to his late father [they were recorded at The Burn where his dad shot his first deer]. Some of the songwriting is explicit in its attempt to address Bonnetta's loss ["Arrows,""You and Jake," "Spectral Dusk"], while other songs are more elliptical and metaphoric (though no less affecting) ["Moon River," "Family Tree"].

Midway through the album the explicit and the elliptical become enmeshed on "Cabin In The Burn." I don't think it's a coincidence that the cabin in the wilderness is central to the landscape Bonnetta and co. have created, and that the song finds a place at the heart of the album. The lyrics describe the spirit of Bonnetta's father inhabiting the cabin ("you are the four walls / you are the bear-claw door / you are the wood stove") while the rocking chair he used to rest in sits empty, looking out onto the wilderness. Pere Bonnetta can no longer sit in the chair so his son lets him lie down in his mind ("and there you can be anything") - it is a deeply touching gesture and the point at which the son truly seems to come to terms with the loss of his father. It's only after this acceptance that Jonas is able to find rest ("Asleep In The Pews"); though even that rest is fitful and leaves him "waiting for some strength."

When he sings that "those nights in the woods / they were dark / and they were deep," on "Asleep In The Pews"  Bonnetta could be describing the recording of Spectral Dusk as well as his memories - he and bandmate Sylvie Smith were joined by a group of friends / musicians at a cabin near Perth, Ontario where the group hunkered down in the winter of 2010. The album seems as remote and self-contained as the cabin must have been, and while you can actually hear the ice in a drink crack on the title track, you can practically hear the floor-beams creak underneath the weight of the emotional load that these friends help Bonnetta carry. Everyone does their very best in contributing to this beautiful tribute - particularly Mika Posen's expressive, evocative violin work on "Irving Lake Access Road, February 12th 2011" which conveys both the loss and the hope of the lyrics elsewhere on the record as it soars and dives wordlessly.

I hesitate to say that I have a "favourite" track on this album because it's not the kind of album you can pull apart and reduce to individual elements (and each listen reveals new elements and sounds that make one song or another stick out at different times), but from the very first time I listened to Spectral Dusk, "You and Jake" was the song that hit me the hardest. In it, Bonnetta reflects on the special relationship that his brother Jake shared with their father, "smoking smokes and just dreaming big." But rather than begrudging that relationship (as some of us would), he instead chooses to draw on the lessons his father taught him to help overcome the grief associated with his death. When Bonnetta sings "you taught me how to be a working man / now I'm gonna work on you" (a line he echoes on "Spirit in the Sky" later on the record), my heart breaks each and every time I hear it. The resolve he displays in that line makes me want to be a better man and a better son - I didn't have the relationship with my father growing up that Bonnetta clearly did with his, but I still have the chance to get over myself and get past my youthful jealousies around my dad and brother's relationship. We're all set to take our first-ever trip together this fall and I find myself wanting to play this song for him and explain what it draws up in me. It's not often that an album has that effect, but it's not often that an album like this gets made. For Bonnetta's sake, I wish that circumstances meant he never had reason to make it, but I'm grateful that he was able to channel his pain into something this beautiful.

You can buy a digital copy of the album at the Evening Hymns Bandcamp page, where the album stream below comes from.

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