by trevor elkin
“there are ghosts sleeping in the ceiling of my room…”
The past is a simple place. We can reconstruct it as we like, bit by bit, rewriting the dialogue, changing the mood, placating our egos, surrounding ourselves with the false fronts of selective memories. Imperfection is made perfect through sheer ignorance, naivete or denial. And so it continues, sometimes for years.
Then, someone we love dies.
What follows is the sudden unraveling of the world we’ve made. Its ghosts gripping onto us, as we come to terms with our new, bare and vulnerable reality. That we survive these moments and, if we are lucky, are left feeling emptier and world-worn, is a miracle of human resilience. That someone could actually write words and music to convey this transition so personally and affectingly, is a blessing. Here is Creature Speak, Canadian folk artist Brittany Brooks, who wrote ‘Shadow Songs’ over the two years following the death of her father in 2013. She says that her family had “encounters with his spirit” in the months after his passing – something that she personally didn’t experience, so she needed to find a way to reconnect.
We join this story with ‘Intro (hospital)’, a segue to the rest of the album’s otherworldly mood, signposted by the cold howling winds heard as the track pans out onto a deep dark forest. Fairy tale symbolism throughout this album sometimes creates a state of trepidation and primal fear as on ‘My Wolf/My Ghost’ with its paw prints following us in the falling snow. Other times, the stories are a benign, comforting presence like the glow of special memories. But it’s when pain is dressed deceptively in the colours of joy that we get a feel for ‘Shadow Songs’ depth and duality. ‘Olly Oxen Free’ skips along with its crisp plucked banjo and dainty vocals, but listen and it becomes clear that this lightness belies the words – a desperate plea to “make this sickness leave”.
Brooks’ voice has a delicate weightlessness similar to Ólöf Arnalds. It’s as if time stops and in that moment temporary things are allowed to be timeless. ‘Phantom Apartment’ is just such a moment, where every creak, snap and rustle of an old building turn into a ghostly chorus. But there’s only one voice she wants to hear again. On the title track there’s a yearning to make that connection to the departed, ‘oh if I could swim in the shadows, full of darkness in the hollow space below your cheek bones’. This is repeated in the spiritual divining of ‘Kerosene Dream’, it’s dark low flute drone and accordian pulsing below heavily strummed guitars. There’s also a profound sense of love throughout this album, palpable through the carefully chosen and arranged instrumentation, evoking gentle nostalgia. In its most quiet, touching moment a scratchy sample of ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ at the end of ‘Oh Susanna’ marks the turning point, like an exorcism allowing the spirits to be laid to rest.
Final track ‘Outro (home)‘ returns to where we started, but this time there is no pretext. The theme brings us back to the immediacy of that hospital, where its plastic tubes and folded blankets are now bearers of false hope. It’s there that Brooks leaves us, lingering on a final poignant image: ‘coloured cards with pictures, saying that I will see you soon, say that I will see you… but when will you go home?’
A sorrowful, yet strangely comforting collection that brings us closer to a truth we’ve almost forgotten, ‘Shadow Songs’ is a powerful and cathartic tribute to the deep human connections that defy time and death. Listen below.
‘Shadow Songs’ is out now, buy it at Bandcamp