These days we see the birth of new genres all the time. Any music journalist worth his or her salt has coined a phrase for the latest fad: boat-bop, occult murder-funk and turban (‘urban’ music with eastern influences, if you must know) are just a few that I’ve come across, and that have stuck in my mind mostly because of their ridiculousness. Much less frequently do we get the chance to observe the extinction – or rather the wilful killing-off – of a genre. But that’s what seems to be happening right now to the species of music that goes under the horribly vague title of ‘singer-songwriter’. It is a phrase that works perfectly well as a job description, a concrete noun, but it is unhelpful in the extreme when it comes to trying to categorise music, and its wispy, bland nebulousness seems to be reflected in the samey and ubiquitous nature of the artists that go under its banner.
Kudos then to Toronto native Jonas Bonnetta, who has by choosing to avoid the singer-songwriter tag and instead performing under the name Evening Hymns is doing his bit to drive another nail into the gigantic, trans-Atlantic coffin of a thankfully moribund classification of music.
Bonnetta’s latest album, Spectral Dusk, deals with the death of his father. But this is no simple journey from hope to despair and back again. The lyrics, obviously, are important, but so are the sonic settings. The opening track is an intriguing, electronic instrumental. Family Tree is deceptively simple and lyrically spiky, a gutsy refutation of family values. Like much of the album its lush yet minimally deployed backing vocals provide a crepuscular backdrop.
The fragile natural imagery that permeates Cabin in the Burn barely covers a wintry, typically Canadian harshness that bubbles to the surface on waves of persistent percussion, before an icy piano motif hesitantly concludes the track. Bonnetta has been compared to Bon Iver and this comes across in the arrangements. There is an unorthodox but effective use of space, and vocals – sometimes distant, sometimes disconcertingly near – are used as an instrument, rather than a simple medium of conveying emotion lyrically and syntactically.
Asleep in the Pews surprises the listener with crisp strings and brass – a wake-up call cutting across the somnambulant organ drone. Spirit in the Sky – not a Norman Greenbaum cover, thank God – is disarmingly frank, with Bonnetta singing ‘still can’t believe you died and left us here alive’ with sparse musical accompaniment.
Where Spectral Dusk really throws out the notion of the ‘singer-songwriter’ is on the nine minute instrumental Irving Lake Access Road, a slow-burning, drone-based piece that opens and deepens imperceptibly. Together with following track – the heartbreaking Song To Sleep To – it forms the emotional and musical centrepiece of an album that provides a lesson for today’s trite and cynical coffee shop troubadours, an album on which coldness and warmth can coexist, and which charts a period of difficult emotional catharsis without ever being dreary or cloying.
Review by: Thomas Blake