Jennifer Castle – Angels of Death
Paradise of Bachelors – 18 May 2018
As per the title, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s fifth album, her first recorded with a live band, is concerned with meditations on death (physical and metaphorical) and its manifestations and portents as well as musings on the art and power of writing.
Opening with the change-themed piano out-on-the-highway ballad Tomorrow’s Mourning as she sings how “there’s no way out, can I band-aid this gash with coffee and hash”, it drifts on similar musical eddies into the soul-tinged pop of Crying Shame with its theme of disappointment, loneliness and isolation. Shifting to a moodily country guitar accompaniment, Texas has specifically personal resonances as a visit to her dying grandmother sparks thoughts of her late father and, more obliquely, her dog, Ribbon, killed by a car (“my black haired love lays dying out in the streets”).
Then comes the more uptempo pedal steel-laced title track, musically evoking fellow countrymen the Cowboy Junkies (and perhaps a hint of the Velvets) as, both referencing and borrowing lines from Canadian poet Al Purdy, she sings of finding solace from depression and despair (“when the angels of death are hanging in the air and my imagination’s feeling broken”) in poetry (though it could equally be music) as the mood shifts to one of regeneration.
Originally featured on her 2008 album You Can’t Take Anymore, We Always Change is revisited in two brief reprises, the first a cinematic pedal steel and strings instrumental and the equally orchestral widescreen second, which closes proceedings, featuring Felicity Williams adding her voice to the echoey vocals.
The four numbers in-between are led by the decidedly country toned Rose Waterfalls that also talks of poetry and, more specifically, of songwriting, “living with the muses all around me waking up to soothe them in the dark” and how they “leave me while I make my coffee and muses don’t come watching in the bath”, trying to balance creativity with living a normal life.
Beginning with a cosmic wash of sound, Grim Reaper again touches on writing (“turning flesh into the storyline”) balanced with thoughts of mortality, as she sings how “ it’s not that I’m afraid at night to meet the one who holds the scythe who makes me kneel before the pew”, but wanting to leave something worthwhile behind before she goes – “I wrote upon the page with scratch with pen I tore along the line defiant as I tried to hatch and justify my earthly time.”
Another quietly meditative rumination, soothed by distant pedal steel and resonant acoustic guitar, Stars of Milk is a letter to a lost soul, of memories (“tell me of your crazy affectionate mother look at her she’s practically dancing i think of her that way I think of her fondly swaying like a boat in the harbour”) and, as she puts it, the notion that the energies of the living and the dead can join mutual forces.
Prior to its Reprise Pt 2 coda, which carries with it the theme of metamorphosis (“if you turn into the fire I will burn grow and glow with you”), Castle returns to thoughts of highways and of never remaining static in life (“I have to keep a highway mind”) for the seven-plus minute Tonight is the Evening with its rumbling drums and psychedelic miasma of guitars, bass and strings gathering to a four-minute mantra-like swirling crescendo.
Castle has long had a fascination with the notion of death and transformation, here, inspired by Joan Didion’s book about grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking, she set out to explore “what happens with the people that are left and make sense of that.” On Grim Reaper, she talks of how her songs hold “the colours of my life.” They are iridescent.
Photo Credit: Cash Honey via Paradise of Bachelors