If ever an album could be described as shimmering, then Lions, the new album by William Fitzsimmons is it. Everything from the ripples of finger picked guitar to the gentle tremolo of his voice, create carefully judged layers of sound that vibrate with a tremulous reverie. Through the haze, the dappled light and shade of the music draws you close, into an intense sonic embrace. It’s both misty yet profoundly moving at the same time, the sense of quite calm is alive with pin pricks of detail, secrets, truths, fears and joys are laid out like a trail to lead you deeper and deeper into the songs. The more enveloped you become the more tantalizing the view into the haze gets.
Lions is uncommon stuff in all ways and there’s a brooding quality to these songs, but then William Fitzsimmons is clearly an uncommon man. There’s his signature look, the shaven head and humungous beard give him a devotional look, monastic almost. Perhaps that’s close to the truth in some senses, not religious worship perhaps, but more in the journey into the self and contemplation of the wider human condition and how those two things relate. He seems able to focus on the underlying tensions of life yet convey them with a deceptive calm, acting like the eye in an emotional hurricane.
There’s a sense of it in the notes that accompany Lions, which carry quotes from William himself. He talks about his sense of gratitude for being able to make music, yet also there’s a disquiet and a sense of conflict in the process. He states, “The longer I’m given the wonderful opportunity to write and create things, and subsequently share them with others, the more seriously and preciously I take that endeavour and responsibility. It is something I look upon with the utmost gratitude and respect.” But he continues revealing, “And yet at the same time I find myself making art in a field that is itself quite the opposite of it. I am learning that one of the most difficult things about being human is not merely facing things that you don’t generally find comfortable or appropriate or even good, but actually learning how to live in the midst of it and not let it take over who you are.”
It’s not the stuff of your average press release or biography, nor does it specifically pinpoint the issues and problems that he has faced. Yet in its own way, when added to the other details of his life that are out in the wider world, it is very revealing.
[pullquote]If we are to talk of uncommon, being raised by two blind parents is a place to start. It’s almost impossible to imagine, but the world that William grew up in was skewed towards the other four senses and sound in particular became the dominant experience.[/pullquote] If we are to talk of uncommon, being raised by two blind parents is a place to start. It’s almost impossible to imagine, but the world that William grew up in was skewed towards the other four senses and sound in particular became the dominant experience. Both of his parents naturally had a keen interest in music and it seems his father favoured classical, while his mother introduced William to the folk and singer-songwriter side. Although it’s the latter that are his most obvious inspiration, the classical side perhaps comes through in the layering that at times creates a wash of sound, which in its own way is quietly symphonic.
His musical education also included lessons on piano and trombone at an early age, while his dad had hand-built a pipe organ in the family home. It wasn’t until well into his teenage years that he picked up a guitar, but William is now versatile on a number of stringed instruments. His credits on Lions list only voice guitar and piano, but Chris Walla, William’s first choice as producer for these sessions adds a wealth of other sounds. He’s also aided by Abby Gunderson on piano, violin and vocal, Jason McGerr on drums and percussion with the voice of Rosie Thomas also in the mix.
William’s alternative career path is also probably telling. As a trained counsellor and mental health therapist, he worked with the mentally ill over several years. It was during a summer break in his graduate studies that William first invested in some basic recording equipment and laid down the music that would become his debut album, Until We Are Ghosts, released back in 2005. His second album, Goodnight, was written largely about his parents divorce and whether through direct cause and effect or just the hand of fate, The Sparrow And The Crow that followed on documented his own marriage breakdown.
His most recent work prior to this was Gold In The Shadows, released in 2011 in special double disc format, with both fully produced and stripped back acoustic versions of the songs. William is clearly able to take the spotlight in the latter guise and a couple of videos that have served as trailers for Lions have featured exactly that. You might say that Gold In The Shadows has a slightly more open sound. There isn’t a lot in it and the record still has that sense of hushed intimacy found here, but there are perhaps more songs with a straightforward bass and drum rhythm, something which is far more subtly applied to Lions.
There are hints through all of this of a complex character with quite personal motivations and a degree of self-examination. So perhaps it has been the increased pressures that a degree of success and recognition have brought. Perhaps there are commercial pressures, performance pressures, travel pressures, creative pressures or a widening gulf between desire and fulfilment. It’s probably unwise to speculate, because whatever has caused the discomfort and soul searching in the lead into Lions, William is playing his cards close to his chest. And that goes for the songs too, with very little explanation to be found anywhere. He has even stated that “I honestly don’t want to say too much about the music, because the truth is if music is of any worth, it should be able to speak for itself.”
Speak it undoubtedly will, although it is more of a murmur and a whisper gathering its strength with repetition, but don’t look for explanations here. Suffice to say that even Took, for which the story of someone taking the blame for someone else’s unspoken wrongdoing is out there, is suggestively ominous rather than explicit. The nagging, multi tracked electric guitar riffs have an almost Talking Heads feel. The sudden snare drum bursts and bass tones add a dramatic punctuation, yet above it all William’s voice floats in quite, breathy confessional.
[pullquote]There are no sudden gear changes, but rather a rise and fall and natural ebb and flow. Underneath the guitars are often busy with little flurries while William’s voice drapes the vocal melodies over the simmering rhythms.[/pullquote]It’s typical of how much of this record works, however, with the patient layering of sounds perhaps echoing those original homemade recordings. The songs naturally eschew verse, chorus, verse obligations, yet still have a sense of flow and obvious structure and melodic resolution, based around some truly gorgeous melodies. There are no sudden gear changes, but rather a rise and fall and natural ebb and flow. Underneath the guitars are often busy with little flurries while William’s voice drapes the vocal melodies over the simmering rhythms.
Centralia provides the only moments of discord, with its distorted beginning and abrupt finish, which adds a little extra drama to the jauntier and more rhythmically driven From You. The title track also has more of a hip-hop beat, which combined with the guitar line, washes of sounds and loops creates an Bon Iver like feel, but Williams voice with the additional female harmonies are, as throughout, uniquely his own sound.
There is little to compare with William Fitzsimmons, although fans of Iron & Wine, Bon Iver and other of the more dreamy singer-songwriters would have Lions marked as an essential purchase. Lions is quite beautiful and filled with songs that are veiled, impressionistic, yet potent. William isn’t about to give it all away with bold declarations, but given the chance he will quietly whisper in your ear and tell you something, offering a glimmer, or planting a seed of thought that has the power to grow into something profound. But what it all it all adds up to and what he has to tell you… Well that’s up to you.
Review by: Simon Holland
Centralia [Live Acoustic]
Took [Acoustic from Hotel Cafe]
William Fitzsimmons will return to the UK in March for a couple of live dates and will perform at Brighton’s Komedia on March 6 before playing a set at The Garage in London on March 7 and at Night & Day, Manchester on March 8th.
Lions is released via Nettwerk Music Group Feb 24th.