Review Summary: A falling-out
I was sitting in a shabby, cloth seat at a recent concert, listening to the intimate memory-song that Sufjan Stevens was sharing about his mother’s death, thinking how odd it will be to applaud all of this in just a few moments, cheering for something that broadcasts such aching. He seemed tired for sharing so much of himself with the world. Ben Cooper, or Radical Face, has crossed into similar territory. From a glance, The Family Tree
is a trilogy storyboarding the fictional Northcotes family, showcasing diversity in sound and consistently good storytelling, dancing between folklore and intimacy. Moving from The Roots
, to The Branches
, and finally into The Leaves
, Ben’s words become less about some made-up history, and more about his own life.
Where Sufjan wore his emotions on his sleeve with Carrie and Lowell
, facing his past head-on, Ben blended his life with the guise of a fictional family. He mentioned in an interview that The Leaves
wasn’t intended to be so personal, but it became a type of therapy. “There are songs on this record that I will never play live. They’re kind of done. I don’t think I’m ever going to play them again…” he admits. This honesty is shared catharsis for anyone with imperfect relationships. Despite the dark theme, The Leaves
starts out blissful enough on “Secrets (Cellar Door),” with a glimmering childhood memory that plays out like a Mark Twain adventure. There’s mysticality, ghosts, a dog and bird are brought back to life. Somewhere in the middle of the track, the pounding drum pulse drops out, and distant words, wet with reverb, ponder “all my life I have known something was off.” This is the first whisper of something different, where the story could be either the character or possibly the self-inflicted thoughts of Ben seeping through.
begins to transition from a work of fiction into a veiled autobiography, growing more alluring with its peeled-back intimacy. The trilogy has also become more musically diverse over the progression, revealing more layering of instruments, now more lush than ever. “Rivers of Dust” climaxes with strings, guitar, piano, and sweeping percussion, and distortion and electronic manipulation are introduced with precision, purposely contrasting the organic arrangements of The Roots
. The “Road to Nowhere” loops a cello arpeggio overlaid with a spastic rhythm. The woodwinds in “Midnight” are floating and spectral. Ben is using his full arsenal to create atmosphere; this isn’t to say everything is new and abnormal though--there’s a thread of similarity running through the trilogy. Musically, you’ll still notice the acoustic guitar backbone along with the claps and slaps of handmade percussion. Fictional storyline glues the trilogy together in bits and pieces. The “Third Family Portrait” elaborates on one specific bloodline that trickles from The Roots
and into The Bastards
compilation. All albums share fantastical characters: the waterwalker from The Roots
, the man nicknamed the Gilded Hand from The Branches
, the boy who sees visions in The Leaves
. Ben creates characters with oddities, perhaps alluding to his own feeling of alienation from his family.
For some, family ties are unbreakable, no matter the reasons. Leaves can fall from branches, but at what cost to the leaves? And do branches owe the roots for their existence? As Ben continues the troubled tale of The Northcotes in this final part of the trilogy, he betrays his emotions more and more. The Leaves
ends as a self-portrait, painted out as clear as a mirror reflection. No longer is Ben his own caricature. You can’t say it’s a happy ending, but it’s one of closure. We’re seeing a coming to terms with family separation in “Everything Costs.” “And I ain’t gonna hang my head for them, for them / I ain’t gonna let them paint the truth with sin.” “The Ship in Port” begs Ben to leave behind the comfortable. But it’s with “Bad Blood” that The Leaves
finds its writer unmasked. The imagery of “The hole in the floor boards / The cot near the front door” seem pulled from Ben’s own memory. The playful magic that ignited the start of the album is all grown up now. “But there’s no magic inside the moon / It’s just a rock you can’t reach.” It took a river of bad blood, receding now, to reveal any truth. This reaches even further back into his past to the 2006 Ghost
release where Ben chants, “Let the river in / If blood is thicker than water / Then let the river in.” He continues: “I cut my branch down from my family tree / To start a fire in the living room / Now the house is just ash, this time it’s sink or swim.” And after it all, Ben is still above water.