OK, full disclosure: we know these people. Heck, if you shop at our store, you might, too. Bassist/singer Sylvie Smith has worked here for years, and songwriter/singer/guitarist Jonas Bonnetta has broken bread with some of us at parties, camping trips, and dinners. Often when you know a band, warm feelings encourage you to wallpaper over their faults with hyperbole and colourful metaphor because you just can't bear being blunt with people so lovely. A few other times, their talents are actually so otherworldly, that you struggle to appear impartial as you bubble forth with dumbfounded praise that, while genuine, simply reads as scenester nepotism.
Evening Hymns are neither case. This not only makes them a little easier to write about honestly; it's also one of the greatest strengths of their music.
Everything on Spectral Dusk unfolds in a manner that is entirely devoid of trend, fashion, or artifice. It's ambiently-paced folk music whose construction is never convoluted. Instead, you can envision each piece being put together as you hear it—this chord here, that tom hit there, this slide guitar call underneath—until there it is. (In a way, their music stands as naked as the band members themselves were in their video for "Dead Deer," a standout track off 2009's Spirit Guides.)
Like Mark Kozelek's various projects (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, solo) you really can't tell if it's 1972 or 1992 or 2012 as you hear these songs. They simply are as they should be at any moment in time. This timelessness is fitting given that the album is a meditation by Bonnetta on the passing of his father, an inevitable moment in all of our lives.
It’s a difficult business eulogizing a loved one in a public forum. Though we all experience loss, so much of what brings meaning to our emotions is rooted in private context. Bonnetta appears to sense this. Rather than overwhelm the record in sentiments either maudlin or saccharine, he smartly grounds his songs in imagery, instrumentation, and even actual field recordings that evoke nature—the one common constant through all of the change we face. His private feelings are indeed there, but they reside amongst the trees and tall grasses of Hymns’ aural landscape.
The resulting work is something that, while steeped with potent feeling, is quite balanced and composed; austere, even, at a glance. Things rarely get too loud or complicated—voices are rarely raised. Evening Hymns take a bit of risk here—by resisting submitting their music to much grand expression or crescendo, they can seem a bit too reverent and careful with their subject to really stir up the blood of the listener. But in truth, the entirety of Spectral Dusk is a bit like someone purposefully whispering to get your closer attention. It doesn't work on everyone's ears maybe, but when it does hook you, the record's gently measured rhythms and relaxed phrasings can be hypnotic, as those things that hide in the foliage are enticed cautiously into full view.
By the time the album finally reaches its penultimate climax on "Moon River"—likely Bonnetta's most emotive vocal on the album—it is a moment of well sown catharsis that has not only been earned, but that does not get oversold. No epic post-rock clanging, no Buckley-esque invocation of spirits. Twenty seconds and it's done. And it hits you right there.
With that humble summit reached, Bonnetta saves maybe his most affecting couplet for some of his last words on the record. "Oh, please come back to me/I need you if I'm to be a man/Oh, I'm not doing that well/That's just what I tell my friends," he offers on closer "Spectral Dusk." It's a perfectly oblique way to end such a record. Instead of feigned strength and tidy conclusion, we end with both vulnerability and ambiguity. For all that Bonnetta reveals of himself and his loss over the course of Spectral Dusk’s eleven tracks, he never self-aggrandizes or seeks to inflate its significance. His tribute is humanly and humanely open: to the paralysis of uncertainty; to unknown coming joys; to relapses of sorrow; and, most of all, to the interpretation of others.
And you certainly don’t need to have met the band to see the value in that.