You don’t have to listen too hard or too long to fun.‘s Some Nights before two things are very clear:
1. Nate Ruess is documenting an existential crisis in his lyrics.
2. This is an (almost absurdly) enthusiastic musical foil for it.
I don’t often mention lyrics at Independent Clauses unless their significance is tremendously foregrounded, as is the case here. Ruess is not obscuring anything in poetics: he attacks religion in “One Foot,” appropriates the now-iconic line “It Gets Better” in the song of the same name, references his parents a lot, and gets a children’s choir to sing “I’ve got nothing left inside of my chest, but it’s all alright” with him (“All Alright”).
Does that sound like an album that would extensively use vocoder, hang a whole tune on a hip-hop style big brass sample (“One Foot,” again), record the majority of the catchiest song with drums and multi-tracked vocals as the focus, or get a #1 chart slot with a hooky radio single? No. But it’s both things, and that’s why this album is so beguiling.
The easy-to-spot high point of the album is the title track, where the multi-tracked vocals, rumbling toms and clapping produce an exuberance that is unrivaled on the album or in any other song I’ve heard this year. I can barely suppress dancing when I hear it (and most times I don’t try to). There are woah-ohs throughout. There’s a an autotune/vocoder breakdown. There’s a guitar solo ending the song. There’s so much singing along. It’s just absolutely wonderful. The accompanying lyrics are some of the most hopeful on the album, as Ruess sings, “Man you wouldn’t believe/the most amazing things/they can come from some terrible nights.” It’s an early contender for song of the year.
“We Are Young,” their hit, is next, and it’s great. You’ve probably heard it. I like it. You like it. Next!
After that is where things start to get more difficult for me to grasp. The acoustic instrumentation of “Carry On” is strongly reminiscent of Ruess’ former outfit, The Format—except for the weird ’80s percussion. “It Gets Better” starts off with a grating rhythmic break, but segues into an intriguing electro-punk tune. “Why Am I the One” has an excellent vocal contribution from Ruess and beautiful arrangement, but has frustratingly contradictory lyrics in the chorus (“For once, for once, for once, I got the feeling that I’m right where I belong / so why am I the one always packing up my stuff?”).
The whole album goes like that, with elements of the songs pulling at each other. It neatly mirrors the conflict that Ruess is singing about, but it doesn’t make for easy listening. It’s really weird to hum “And I feel so all alone!” triumphantly, but listening to this album will cause that to happen.
I can unreservedly recommend both the music and lyrics of “Some Nights,” as I’ve been looping it consistently for several weeks now. The rest of the album is a challenging but interesting listen, as Ruess and co. are talented songwriters and arrangers. I suspect this will resonate deeply with some who prize emotional rawness in lyrics and fall completely flat with others who go in expecting 9 variations on the lyrical theme of “We Are Young.” If you’re in it for music you can’t hear anywhere else, then you’re certainly in for a treat.
Genre names exist to quickly allow someone to identify whether they’ll be interested in a band. But the baggage they carry is conflicted: saying “acoustic pop” can clue in fans of John Mayer and Jenny & Tyler—and there’s a chasm between the two artists’ sounds. There’s an ocean between their ideologies, too, and that complicates things. Then comes the imported freight: “Acoustic pop” has become synonymous with the radio-created “genre” of Adult Contemporary (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Sara Bareilles). All of these things can be classified as acoustic pop.
Folk is even worse. Folk music, according to Ronald D. Cohen in Folk Music: The Basics, is “old songs, with no known composers.” However, American folk music has a distinct style and sound, as compiled by the Lomaxes. Indie-kids adopted this history through appropriation, and we ended up in a situation where “American folk” is immediately associated with Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes (one of whom is from England, and the which chose a name because it sounded English). And they don’t play folk covers, anyway.
So please bear with me; it’s genuinely difficult to explain what Bowerbirds‘ The Clearing sounds like. Our en vogue musical terms offer me little to explain how their incredibly moving music actually sounds. There’s chamber-pop, but this isn’t sterilized like Andrew Bird. There’s orchestral-folk, but this isn’t characterized by its arrangements—even if they do make beautiful use of strings on opener and single “Tuck the Darkness In.” There’s singer/songwriter, but the Bowerbirds’ sound is made of two equal partners and a full instrumental range; this is a true collaborative effort. But enough hedging and complaining about what it is not. I’ve shot around the subject enough that perhaps you’ll be able to put together a composite after this statement:
The Clearing is a wide, sweeping, gorgeous palette that externalizes intimate, difficult emotions through atypical song structures and beautiful melodies.
The main instruments are piano and guitar, but distorted synths provide the highlight of “In the Yard” and organ is the critical sound in “This Year.” “Overcome With Light” is the only song that even sounds remotely close to something that could be canonized and in 100 years be a song without author; its glorious, stately majesty becomes the core of the album, because it encapsulates the emotion that the album is trying to build out. The world is a difficult place, full of tension and struggle; but even though that, there is beauty, and wonder, and worth.
The divide between high art and low art is a complex question that deserves its own post, but this piece resonated with me on one point that the author thinks defines “high art” (and I think defines “good art,” which are not the same): “Complexity of the responses to the works’ emotions, which sometimes have no name.” Saying that The Clearing is a beautiful orchestral-folk album is not only potentially confusing, it’s selling the album short in numerous ways. There’s no easy handle for what this music sounds like to me nor what it conjures up in me, and that’s good. There’s a unique vision here that transcends my pre-formatted ideas to confine it, and that’s what the best art forces me to do: I have to hear and think in different ways, albeit slight, to process and inhabit the piece. (And even slight change is significant in our era of filtering out what we dislike by removing it from our social feeds.)
The Clearing is immediately accessible in some ways: “Tuck the Darkness In” is deeply affecting from the first listen. The rest of the album unfolds its joys in multiple listens; I would recommend that you stick around for those as well.