words by maria sledmere
With certain music, there’s a specific impression of wintriness to come, of bronzy and rich acoustic, that you can trace over memories—watching landscapes shed their brown and gold from your passing car. Somebody is driving you and temporarily you’re safe there, in the car with its closeness and warmth against the dimming, twilight sky. For a while, you can be content in your smallness; then you can accumulate, line by line, a sense of the year’s dwindling palette of event and mood.
There’s something about S. Carey’s voice that holds out those mahogany tones, promises a Midwestern autumn that you can’t help feel an ache for, even if you’ve never even been. The feeling of already missing the autumn leaves, before they’ve even gone. You feel it on the Bon Iver collaborations, those murmurings of perfect complement, a wispiness that drifts through compositions both skeletal and intricate. You feel it most on Carey’s latest work: a record that crystallizes his pastoral textures into a minimalism of wandering melody and feathery lyric. You hear a familiar, frost-bitten voice but somehow, maybe, you think of spring.
Hundred Acres, a follow-up to 2014’s Range of Light, was recorded at April Base in Wisconsin. Where Carey’s previous records demanded a certain intimacy, there’s a hint of brightness, maybe even extroversion, on Hundred Acres that rewards long walks or languid accompaniments to morning coffee. This isn’t to belittle its emotional significance to quotidian moments. Carey has been both praised and criticised for his compositional ‘simplicity’, which prompts the question of what constitutes a musical fullness or complexity. Carey’s lyrics are often elliptical, gesturing towards but never quite filling in the image.
In his songs, there’s an urge to get lost, coupled with reflexive warning: “We should lose our way before we lose our minds”. Where Justin Vernon’s classical knack for exquisite couplets feels more like deep and lathering oil colours, Carey’s own song-writing has the lightening, gradient effect of watercolour paint: “The meadow where I left you then / Is washed away in winter’s grey”. Under the patient stir of strings, such unadorned lines sketch universal experience. At times, the songs disappear into translucency, as when Hundred Acres dips into its middling quietude, before rising through pastel-shaded chorale harmonies. The subject of the record, his voice rising only to fade, has a touch of the Everyman—it’s easy to fill his shoes, or better still his shadow. Carey rarely dwells over details of love or heartbreak; he deals instead with flora and fauna, with the metaphors of pretty, romantic abstraction. The wayfaring melodies seem to search less for direction than the swathe of catharsis.
I remember someone once critiquing a Wild Nothing record for its muted vocals, its cryptic nostalgia and washed-out guitars; the man in question, after needlessly extolling the superior virtues of Leonard Cohen, wryly concluded, ‘but I’ll let you have it, if that’s what you want from the eighties’. That Wild Nothing album, Nocturne, made me think of waterfalls, the hush of something nonhuman purring over everything, synths blinking out from the darkness. Inflections of restraint casting haunting shadows over eighties maximalism; it’s something you can trace in Vernon’s more robust re-workings of canonical twentieth-century pop—the twist of electronica shrilled to vivid image.
With Carey’s solo work, however, the decolourised, polaroid quality of his stripped composition is situated more in the context of a lambent contemporariness: music smoothed for easy listening and quiet, daylight nurturing. This isn’t a challenging album, by any means, but challenging isn’t the point. This is a record for immersing yourself in other places, while coming up against the fact of time, the material now of the present. Somehow throughout it holds that paradox: evoking lonely old worlds of wilderness while sounding like a record you could safely play in a breakfast café, serving avocado toast to Valentine couples. While lyric intimacy can sometimes alienate, dripping with a confessional shame suited for solitary bedroom listening, Carey’s new record feels potentially collective, more accessible.
Hundred Acres features contributions from Sufjan Stevens collaborator Casey Foubert and string arrangements from Rob Moose (yMusic), as well as backing vocals from Gordi, whose voice lends a softly dolorous, Beth Orton poignancy to Carey’s gauzy lyrics. Where Stevens often uses landscape as the backdrop to tenderly narrated personal dramas, the environment in Carey’s record is more deeply interwoven with human emotion.
Objects in nature provide waypoints and landmarks for inward journeys, as on “Have You Stopped to Notice”: “I will always be here / in the needles and cones”. There’s a healing desire to orientate the self in potentially inhospitable terrains—the distant, naked panoramas of “Yellowstone”. Where Stevens often articulates the coils and furls, the beauty and strangeness of nature through evocative, eclectic composition, Carey prefers pared-down arrangements: softened drums, sanded acoustic strums under a voice whose restraint is much like the wind rustling the pines.
Occasionally you’ll find a shudder, as the octaves rise for a drawn-out note on “Have You Stopped to Notice”. Mostly the vocals are susurrations, whispering through the shivering leaves, the faint strings and silvery guitar picks. The effect is soothing; there’s an ambient quality to Carey’s work which lets you withdraw from the impulse to lyric. These are songs which fade into each other, with very little bleed round the edges. You’d be forgiven for closing your ears to language and letting the melody itself wash over you, especially on neatly luminous standout, “Fool’s Gold”. It’s a childlike pleasure, remembering your relative smallness again—closing into a quietly sublime and unsayable sense.
Although the record’s temperature is pleasantly cool, swaddled in coppery, autumn sunlight, it also skirts the fringes of shadow: “We came back circling / let the black night point us north”. Carey sings of bodies drying out, of death crisping the corners of scenery—there are always places you might not want to roam. Winter’s ‘staleness’ leaves us with a retreat into love, as on “Hideout” where physical intimacy blankets him from the witness of time-wasting winter, its starved impress of darkness. The sparseness finds hopeful counterpoint in warmer images of love, stirred over flourishing strings. There’s a sense of spring’s redemption as only around the corner.
Perhaps wisely, Carey doesn’t linger too close to the dangerous edges; the emotion is always reigned in before the point of discomfort. In lieu of precarity, we’re left with wholesome declarations of belonging. If the record is looking for a place to dwell, “Meadow Song” closes the album with a sense of this accomplishment: “Every time I see the west / A hole fills up inside my chest”. The blissful string arrangements and variant sketches of mood here are among the most beautiful on the album. There’s a touch of Julie Byrne’s bucolic inner pilgrimages, the same restraint of subtle grace.
Yet where Byrne’s voice can reach cavernous depths and avian heights, metamorphosing freely with the world around her, Carey’s style is steadier, very much human and terrestrial. This is an earthy, vernal record, redolent of its maker’s knack for pleasing melody and smooth production. There are moments of erasure, where Carey invites us in, only to dissipate a narrative through ambiguity: “And you’re tracing your old steps / like you said you wouldn’t do”. Outwardly observant as Carey’s focus is, it’s nonetheless possible to remark on how the album often seems to withdraw into itself, indulging in lushly blurred autumnal tones while failing to pick out the outlines of detail.
It’s possible to want more emphasis, experiment: the kind of dynamism which marks Vernon’s career trajectory; more potent colours to splash on the canvas. Instead of contextualising Hundred Acres against Carey’s involvement with Bon Iver, however, maybe it deserves listening on its own terms. From the first chords of opener “Rose Petals”, a particular bittersweetness settles in streaks across the window. A beautiful day is starting to lose its powder blue; fronds of amber are curled around the trees and there’s darkness there already. Carey warns against turning back towards the glow of the past, but retracing our steps is only inevitable. Hundred Acres bears the imprint of its folk-rock heritage, Nick Drake’s golden, sycamore sorrow; it also bears the residue of pop’s pastoral contemporaries, your James Vincent McMorrow or Fionn Regan.
There’s a soft, indulgent quality to its compositions that smudges the pain into a childhood memory, a car seat vision. The trick is to let the mood suffuse you, then fill in the edges yourself—draw out the form of your own memory and thought. Let the melodies run through it all, a syrupy river of present and past. Find yourself only between directions, muddled and swirled, and let this be okay, let this be the story. As Rebecca Solnit puts it, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: ‘The stories shatter. Or you wear them out or leave them behind. Over time the story or the memory loses its power. Over time you become someone else. Only when the honey turns to dust are you free’.
Hundred Acres is out Feb 23, via Jagjaguwar
Pre-order it here