Review Summary: The heart strains.
While still an album obsessed with death and what may come after, A Church That Fits Our Needs
is strangely hopeful even while it relates to the deepest parts of grief, a contemplation of past and present rather than a tear-stained farewell. Frontman and main creative force Ari Picker wrote this after his cancer-stricken mother killed herself shortly after his wedding in 2009, and, yes, A Church That Fits Our Needs
is a hard listen. But it’s a triumphant one, celebrating the muse on the cover as often as it mourns her passing. Picker has stated that he wanted to provide his mother, an artist, “a space, in the music, to be, and to become all the things she didn’t get a chance to be when she was alive.” It’s less a funeral march than a memorial, finally arriving at the lush intersection of folk, pop and classical music that Picker has been threatening to master for years. Stuck in a sort of creative stasis with the release and re-release of his debut EP and LP over the past few years, perhaps it was this life changing event that was what Picker really needed to discover himself as his own artist. A Church That Fits Our Needs
realizes all the potential that All Alone In An Empty House
promised, and Picker, a Berklee College of Music graduate whose first orchestral work was for the North Carolina Symphony, melds all the various threads of his influences into a cohesive, heartbreaking whole.
There’s shades of the loss that permeated Arcade Fire’s Funeral
here, a tinge of Radiohead’s chilly baroque arrangements, and the kind of orchestral finessing that Jonsi could appreciate; there’s also a heavy Stravinsky influence and the sweeping cinematic quality of film scorers like Nino Rota. In Picker’s arrangements, though, there’s a distinctly American quality – the sound of rushing rivers, the hushed crack of leaves in a wintry forest. The gentle finger picking and dramatic strings paint a chromatic, vivid picture in songs like the stately, melancholy “Icy River,” where Picker’s crystal clear tenor completes everything: “Icy river / put your arms around my mother / I burned her body in the furnace / till all that’s left was her glory.” Picker’s lyrics dabble in the crushingly intimate as well as the darkly fantastical – veiled lyrics about dead birds and golden eyelids, with nature imagery and archetypal discussions about heart and the hereafter predominating. It’s a soundscape that seems to revel in life rather than death, and it’s this verve and melodic enthusiasm that prevents A Church That Fits Our Needs
from becoming a one-note lamentation.
Though it’s Picker’s lyrics that provide the emotional punch, it’s his superb technical skills that make A Church That Fits Our Needs
so much more than a simple outpouring of grief. Picker enjoys playing around with meter, and his complex use of strings and use of fellow vocalist Emma Nadeau’s airy whisper dabbles in dissonance but always somehow manages to return to a resolving major lift. “As you close your eyes from the water / a golden light wanders with the birds / where have you been, what have you seen / all the peace when you come following / I’ll tell you it’s worth it all,” Picker sings on “Golden Eyelids,” and there’s the major key surge, an optimistic murmur, but there’s also a hidden tension in the taut, haunting strings that threaten in the background, swirling up in a gusty ostinato. For much of The Church That Fits Our Needs
, there’s that struggle to find peace, to reconcile the lessons and traits he’s inherited from his mother with her untimely, senseless death. “My song can try / but there are things that songs can’t say,” Picker sings with more than a touch of sad finality on the closing lines of “Vines,” his voice close to breaking on the last couplet: “Am I hopeless" I trust you, but where are we walking to"”
It’s an appropriate theme for the record, where the loss of a loved one is not just something that can never be found again but is also an opportunity to reflect and cherish. It’s a theme that is also not necessarily resolved by the time “Vines” ends, although the harrowing gut-punch combo that is the tender ballad “This Dead Bird is Beautiful,” and the cleansing stomp of “Garden” comes closest. The former is the kind of bare acoustic piece that leaves no room for subtlety, Picker defiantly reminding himself that he’ll “always have her eyes,” while the latter picks up all the tense and pensive wonderings of the past eight songs and brings them crashing down in a cathartic wave of emotion, apocalyptic strings and percussion. It’s an exhausting listen, but what A Church That Fits Our Needs
does so well is how it makes this loss palatable – the grief is real and heartfelt and sometimes overwhelming, but in its honesty and the warm instrumentation that Picker has mastered, it’s thoughtful and all too easy to get lost in. Even when there seems to be nothing left, there’s still simple beauty in life, Picker seems to say on “An Artist’s Song;” “So sing out your hymn of faith / cause I have none / your song is my armor.” It’s an odd sort of comfort, but it’s a comfort nonetheless, and if nothing else A Church That Fits Our Needs
provides something to hang on to: memories. In that respect, it’s a fitting monument to Picker’s mother as she was, not how she ended, and it’s a touching, affirming milestone in his own career.