on October 16, 2012
Alison Sudol's third album under the moniker A FINE FRENZY finds the artist evolving with a concept album dealing with the weighty issues of what it is to lack meaning and of finding one's purpose in this life. Before one can appreciate what the album is, one must first understand what it is not. It is not a retread of the previous two albums - it is not a collection of catchy tunes and memorable hooks. What it is is a journey capturing the emotions that begin with a sense of loss, continues into a search for meaning, and ends with the revelation of where that meaning is derived. Those who would demand that Alison retain the same sound they've enjoyed in previous albums will be largely let down here. I'll be blunt about this - it's not musically as strong or diverse as what we've heard from her before - but digging deeper into the poetry of the writing, one will find a treasure worth seeking.
On the surface, the work is presented as a fable of a lone tree, the last remnant of a once great forest, literally pining for the life that once was, but is now lost. As the album unfolds, the tree is given the ability to leave where it has been rooted and set off in search of what it lost. But it discovers along the journey that one cannot find what one has lost - rather, one finds a NEW START.
Now, I can't speak for what Alison had in mind as she wrote many of these songs - but to me, there is an element here of what it is to first confront that awful chasm of adulthood that greets us all when we first step out of our childhood and realize it's "all on us now!" We long, sometimes, for the simple joys of our youth when everything seemed easy and happy - and many adults will lose years, even decades, refusing to grow up - finding ever more destructive ways through ever more destructive relationships, to try to "get back" to that feeling. But the revelation that hopefully comes to us sooner, rather than later, is that we cannot go back to the old life, but rather it is now our job to make a NEW life!
Musically, the album is a pretty bold departure from her first two works - which were much more melodic and peppy - verging on pop in some cases. Here, she has scaled back a lot of the production and many of the tracks slow to a snail's pace, to then be revived by a suddenly upbeat follow up track. Reading some of the reviews (and judging from my own first impression) this different approach is turning some fans off. I myself was a little confused the first time through.
It wasn't until I read up on the intent of the album, watched a track-by-track interview with the artist, and watched the short film she wrote to accompany the album (which you can find on Youtube by searching "The Story Of Pines" ) that I started to really hear the whole album. When you understand the flow of it, suddenly the full weight of it hits you! And the songs that appear to be complete changes of pace actually make sense when you understand where you are in the "story." This is a concept album, and concept albums have the one weakness that you often cannot pick songs out individually and call them "hits." Every song works together - some songs don't "pay off" until you listen to the next track. This is an album that must be listened to in a single and undistracted sitting, which can be a challenge as it clocks in at well over an hour. But it's worth it!
Those who loved her epic orchestrations on ONE CELL or her pop hooks on BIRDCAGE, may very well find this album off putting. It's a shame, because it is thematically a VERY profound work - and the orchestration of each track perfectly fits that flow of the story. I love that Alison has taken this risk - it put me off at first, I admit - but it quickly grew on me, and I'm finding this to be one of the best albums of this year!
I can't honestly say that I prefer this new album to her previous works, but I definitely am enjoying it - regardless of where it ranks, A FINE FRENZY still remains one of my favorite artists!
Well done, Alison!!
Now I will attempt a track-by-track description of the album - this is all based on my own reading of the lyrics, of course, so I could be way off. NOTE: The ratings don't necessarily denote the goodness or badness of the songs, but more the degree to which I felt they belong on the album.
PINESONGS (5 out of 5) - one of the best songs, a perfect piece to start with, sets the theme in motion about loss and pining for the past.
WINDS OF WANDER (4 out of 5) - the tree decides to stop pining and set out in search of what was lost
AVALANCHES (5 out of 5) - written by Alison on the occasion of her friend having a baby, the song serves both as a promise by the tree to protect the creatures that rest in its branches, and an anthem for parents who similarly promise their children the same protection - beautiful song.
The next three songs are probably where Alison loses a lot of the casual viewers, as the pace of the album slows to a near full stop...
RIVERSONG (4 out of 5) - deals with feeling a lack of purpose as the tree looks for love in those who, though willing, are simply unable to give it what it needs. The subtlety of the orchestration aptly matches the theme.
THE SIGHTING (3 out of 5) - an otherworldly piece in which the tree expresses that love is like a figure on a cliff that cannot be reached - we sometimes want to bring love down to OUR level, but it asks us to rise to its level instead, which we cannot do until we cast off our encumbrances. It's a lonely, hollow track - it's a decent song, but could maybe have been left off to better keep up the album's pace.
DREAM IN THE DARK (2 out of 5) - a simple lullaby, just Alison and a mandolin, musing on the moment of giving up searching for what was lost and can never be found. Between the choice to record this with a lowfi sound, and the fact that the next song picks up the same theme but in a much more positive manner, this is another song that, while lovely, could have been left off the album.
SAILINGSONG (5 out of 5) another of the album's best - finally infusing some hope and energy back into the proceedings. The tree has given up the search for what was, and is instead heading off to sea to find a new meaning, while the refrain echoes "You can't go back, no, you can't go back!" AFF fans will love this one.
SADSEASONG (2 out of 5) - evocative song of loneliness in the journey, what it means to live a life without meaning ... a fine song on its own, and I do understand its function on the album, particularly as it sets up the next track, but once again the album slows to a halt when it feels like it should be moving, following the last piece - I would probably have left this one off.
THEY CAN'T IF YOU DON'T LET THEM (4 out of 5) - this is cool song from Alison, pretty unique - detailing the perils of falling in with the wrong crowd, settling for instant happiness with the wrong people, rather than holding firm to the voice that has been guiding you toward a better, though difficult destination.
DANCE OF THE GREY WHALES (2 out of 5) - a short and wordless piano piece - once again, lovely in itself, but largely unnecessary at this point in the album.
IT'S ALIVE (4 out of 5) - the final leg of the album kicks off with a high-energy track, finally letting go of the ghosts of the past to embrace the future.
NOW IS THE START (5 out of 5) - the album's climactic moment is a wonderful song of rapturous joy! After such a long and dark journey, the revelation comes that meaning is found in the beginning of a new life. Whatever it is you've lost - childhood, a loved one, a job, a home... no matter what, you can't go back, but you can go forward, and find the new... this one of Alison's most exciting and joyous tracks - very wonderful, a great payoff to the entire album.
UNTITLED (2 out of 5) - I'm puzzled with the last piece - I think the album really should have ended with NOW IS THE START and the joy that erupts from it. But Alison goes once more to the slower and mournful, with a hint of hope in the chorus.