Thursday, September 10, 2009

Music for the broken soul

The latest album of Soulsavers, Broken, has been described, as far as I can tell so far, as some sort of mix of blues, soul, gospel, rock and electronica. I really don't know if all of that can mix together at all but, if it can, and if this album is the product of that, then it is very, very good indeed.

But the first and most important thing to know about this album is that it sounds just terrific - yes, it is dark; yes, some of it is deeply, deeply, sad - but its story is told with such beauty, such intensity - whether it's aggressive, or whether it's gentle - that you cannot help but fall in love even with the sadness.

This album brings together a lot of names who, I gather, represent a pretty impressive line-up - even though, I must confess, none of them ring any bells for me at all. There is Mark Lanegan, Richard Hawley, Jason Pierce, Mike Patton and Gibby Haynes, all having their say. I really don't know who any of these people are, but the sound they produce certainly had a profound effect on me - music of deep, deep darkness which, even in that darkness, seems to manage to somehow find a way of leaving you believing in the light.

Broken brings together an incredible spectrum of sounds and emotions and, of course, genres. There's electric guitars, there's lush strings, there's sparse piano, there's harmonicas, saxophones, organs, a Cedar flute; some of it is heavy, pounding rock; some of it is gentle, swaying folk; some of it is introspective, anguished blues. All of it is like a drug - unsettling and soothing at the same time.

The mood for Broken is set in the first few bars of the first track, "The Seventh Proof" - a slow, purely instrumental, sad waltz, played on piano, woodwind and strings, against a crackling background that makes you feel this music, despite all its depth and emotion, is coming to you from a distance, and from a long time ago. It's a brilliant way of making you feel that all that follows will be, in some way, in quotation marks. A story.

And the story certainly takes you to all kinds of places - angry, sad, lost and lonely - but all of it conveyed with such eloquence and beauty, whether it be by the rough, deep and weary voice of Mark Lanegan, crooning but always musical, or by the aggessive, dark colours of "Death Bells", or by the almost morbid catchiness of "Unbalanced Pieces" telling its tale of dislocation and emptiness ("Gone - Now carry on through seasick seasons/I'm crawling mother, mother, mother, in vain"), or by the beauty of a solo cello against a bare piano in "You Will Miss Me When I Burn", or by the sad purity of Red Ghost's (Australia's Rosa Agostino) voice in some of the album's later tracks (like the heartaching simplicity of "Praying Ground"). Listen to that and you cannot help but feel embraced by it. Even the nightmarish chaos of the jazz-infused "Rolling Sky" draws you in.

There is just no limit here to the ways this album shares with you its sadness and, ultimately, its determination to comfort you. The purely instrumental "Wise Blood", with its contemplative cello against sustained strings, feels almost as if it is closing the quotation marks of the opening track - a slow, gentle sunrise, perhaps, after such a long and difficult night.

But Broken doesn't end there - rather it ends with "By My Side", a slow, restful, even majestic song, sung again by Red Ghost, bringing a feeling of peace and resolution to everything. A full stop.

Broken brings together so many things, both musically and emotionally. I would never have thought it would all fit together - but here it does.

This is yet another PBS discovery for me. It is an album so full of interesting and diverse moods and sounds that you really can't possibly absorb it one go. It shows you that, even in the darkness, there is colour and beauty and, with every subsequent hearing, you discover more of it. It's not happy music - but it is good music, in every sense - and I reckon, no matter how you are feeling before you listen to it, you will feel better at the end.

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