I’ve been listening to Josh Caress for almost a decade now, through dozens of mentions on this blog, half a dozen albums, and two Kickstarter campaigns (his own for Come On Pilgrim! and mine for the Never Give Up project). Caress’ Little Lights is the sonic culmination of the last ten years that Caress has invested in creating lush, gorgeous work.
New listeners can jump in right here at Little Lights and experience an incredible album of beautifully-arranged indie-pop/singer-songwriter work–“When I Drove Across the Country” is as moving an 11 minutes as you could hope to hear. But for those who’ve been tracking with Caress’ catalog, there’s a wealth of connections, tip-offs, and tributes to ponder. “When I Drove” is the chronological and emotional centerpiece of the record, a sweeping travelogue that calls to mind the lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure. The sonic palette is a wide-screen, romantic reading of the night sky that updates the template of the magnificent Letting Go of a Dream with crisper production and instrumentation while still creating great clouds of sound. That template is overlaid with digital blips called out of Perestroika, which lend an extra level of depth to the landscape. The central lyrical image of the travelogue is actually a domestic scene of the narrator having breakfast with his young son instead of being out on the road–shades of the family life present in The Rockford Files.
All of that comes together in one deeply affecting 11-minute opus that successfully pushes the bounds of what Caress is capable of. The arrangement is complex over the life of the song, building and fading out to emphasize elements: the central moment is delivered by just an acoustic guitar and Caress’ reverb-laden voice, before the song slowly grows back to a pivotal lyrical conclusion and long instrumental outro. The guitars, vocals, strings, synths, and piano that swirl their way through this tune are all played with a sophisticated, fine-tuned hand–the result is nothing less than stunning. There are songs before and after “When I Drove Across the Country,” but they all point to and lead away from this tune. “To Be Strong” is more overtly dramatic, while the title track is potentially more tightly arranged with the same instruments. But neither of those have such a strong synergy of lyrics, melodies, and arrangement. It’s a tour de force, especially if you’ve unwittingly watched it coming for a decade.
The only tune that gives “When I Drove Across the Country” a run for its money is its follow-up track (and polar opposite) “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are).” Caress has never been afraid of using plain language for big emotions–where he delves deep into wordplay and scene-painting in “When I Drove,” he prefers to lay it out plain in this one: “I know it’s real / and I know it hurts / I know the suffering / I know what it’s worth.” The fact that the word “worth” connects with the word “cost” that appears in a critical soul-searching moment of “When I Drove” makes it even better. If you need some catharsis, Caress has some for you with this tune.
And not just lyrically, either–“Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are)” is a triumphant, jubilant indie-rock tune that makes me think of Bruce Springsteen leading The Arcade Fire (and recalls the full band sound of Perestroika). Starting with thumping toms and a great electric guitar line, the song bursts into snare rolls and synth licks, great ideas just stacked on top of great ideas. It’s a testament to a decade of songwriting that this doesn’t descend into chaos. Instead, it ratchets up to a hair-raising, spine-tingling moment when Caress howls out “Come up to the mountain! / Would you offer me the world?” over an all-out tempest. It’s the sort of thing that I didn’t know I wanted until I heard it, and then I couldn’t get enough. It’s the sort of thing I want to start getting hyperbolic about.
After the one-two punch of “When I Drove Across the Country” and “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are),” the rest of album keeps the quality high. “Interlude (Across the Whole Desert Sky)” is particularly notable for introducing some weird arpeggiator effects that keep a mysterious edge to the album. “I Won’t Get This Low Again” is a highway rock song with some serious ’80s vibes going on. The intro and outro (a thing I deeply love from Letting Go of a Dream) set the scene beautifully. It’s just an incredible album.
Little Lights is the type of album we don’t get that often anymore: the album that is designed to be heard all in one sitting and (essentially) all as one song. There are almost no gaps in sound–this is a “through-composed” record, where each song blends into the next. As a result, it’s thoroughly cohesive musically and lyrically. (The lyrics seem to be a long goodbye to “all that” and a hello to a new life.) When we critics say something is a statement, we often mean that the effort expended is extraordinary and that the results are a calling card. Little Lights is a statement of a different type: it actually has something to say, musically and lyrically. It’s a rare treat to hear an artist on top of their game: check out Little Lights to get the experience. —Stephen Carradini