I’d started wondering if I was going to find a favorite album for 2011. There’ve been a few really good releases so far this year: Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine…but I’d put each of them in the “good but not great” category. Imminently listenable, but…not the kind of songs that burrow their way into your brain and set up residence. THAT’S what makes a great album, in my opinion.
So, like I said, I was beginning to wonder if 2011 might go down as a year devoid of that one GREAT album for me…
…until I listened to The Head and the Heart, a magnificent opus of yearning and loneliness from my new favorite Seattle-based indie band.
Now, I’ll admit: the band name was enough to make me almost write them off instantly. (I know all that stuff about not judging a book by its cover, but the same rule doesn’t apply to band names. You see “The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies” on the album cover, you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into. Think about it. I speak truth.) “The Head and the Heart” is a terrible name for a band in my opinion. It comes across like they’re trying too hard for significance, an over-earnest attempt at self-definition. Plus it’s just dorky. I suppose some would find it an improvement over “The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies”, but whatever.
That being said, I came across one of their songs “Lost In My Mind” on a free Amazon sampler a couple weeks ago. I liked the song enough to listen to a few snippets on eMusic and I liked what I heard even more. I used a few eMusic credits to download the whole album. After the first listen, I knew I’d found the best album of the year. Let me tell you why.
First of all, this is my kind of music: acoustic guitar, bass, violin, piano, indie sensibility, soaring harmonies. Sort of Avett Brothers meets the Pacific Northwest. Plus, these dudes are cool by association, having opened for Already & Not Yet faves Vampire Weekend, The Decemberists, and Iron & Wine. But what sets this album apart is its resonance with me on a personal level: the lyrical depiction of the human condition is pretty much spot on here.
If the album has a theme, it’s this: our universal longing for home and the intermediate loneliness that accompanies our waiting. The album opener, “Cats and Dogs”, sets the tone for the record: “Oh the songs people sing for hope / And for the ones that have been gone for too long.” There’s an intersection of pain and beauty as we recount our losses — the terrible toll of tragedy met with the best of human resilience and malleability — with the hope that this isn’t all there is. Some call such hope futile and foolish; I call it the fabric of life. What fuels such hopefulness is this confession at the end of “Cats and Dogs”: “We’re only here to find the love that lingers after the moment.”
But all is not pollyanna positivity: take “Ghosts”, a jangly little pop-record that is fixated on the notion that, for all of our talk about leaving and moving on to bigger and better things in life, “someday we’ll all be ghosts”. Or “Rivers and Roads”, a lilting ballad that opens with “A year from now we’ll all be gone / All our friends will move away.” This line instantly grabbed me: in the 10 years we’ve lived in Huntsville, my three closest friends have all moved away and a fourth is preparing to move next month. But given the album’s theme, there is more in play here, a nod to the brevity of life. “Honey Come Home” articulates a response: when faced with life’s absurdities, we reach a point where we throw our hands up and say, “I just want to die with the one I love beside me / I am ready to be home.” Indeed.
As someone who has been shaped by the grief of my early years, I know I’m prone to filter certain experiences through my own loss and longing for reunion. I’ll give you that. But I suppose these experiences have given me a deep appreciation for honest reflection on loneliness and the ache for home. That’s why “River and Roads” speaks to me so much:
Been talking about the way things change And my family lives in a different state And if you don’t know what to make of this Then we will not relate Rivers and roads / Rivers and roads Rivers ’till I reach you
I guess I’m a bigger fan of that over-earnest stuff than I realized. But this album has been a reminder for me of the deeply spiritual connection we share and the eventual culmination of all things. It has renewed my belief that when it all fades to black, there is something more, something beautiful and glorious and right. The album closes with “Heaven Go Easy On Me” and the lyric: “All things must end, darling.” For the lonely, there is perhaps nothing more comforting.
I could write more, but I’m already pushing 900 words. Suffice to say, I’m a fan. I expected to find cool background music; I didn’t expect to find a record of such evocative power. A true masterpiece and 2011’s Album of the Year.