Review Summary: "How's your life been, now that your altar's been torn down?"
In the midst of my obsession with the outlandish, ostentatious, and sometimes remarkably silly landscape of the Portland rock scene, I stumbled across one of the city’s unsung jewels. Norfolk & Western is generally not regarded as much more than a mere twinkle in the eye of the average Decemberists fan, a footnote reserved only for those most faithful to the Hush music catalog.
Initially upon hearing the opening whir of a dusty old film projector on “The Longest Stare”, which ends up being the Unsung Colony’s phenomenal opening track, came the expectation that this band was going to be a cheap imitation of the delicious, old-time absurdity of the Decemberists. As somebody whose idea of Portlandian music was created by that band, I was worried. What they pull off is a delicate balancing act between creative and pretentious, and any impostors would surely fall on the wrong side of that line. Luckily, there is nary a pirate or whale to be found on The Unsung Colony.
It was to my delight that the first track opened to slow percussion, twinkling piano, and the hushed whisper of Adam Selzer. The song is just the right mix of warm embrace and silent, disconcerting glare - Selzer’s warm voice gives way to a very murky set of lyrics, detailing a meeting with a distant friend who seems to have achieved a life of fame and success only to have it crash back down upon them. It is the perfect entryway to a largely contemplative album.
Much of the album is an exercise in character study. But whereas the Decemberists’ characters are often one-shot sideshow caricatures that sound like they came out of a demented children’s book, the Unsung Colony’s characters feel like they could be your next-door neighbors. When it’s at its best, the Unsung Colony is about the people that inhabit our lives, and the way their ghosts can linger for so long after they have parted ways with us.
There are a number of songs on the album like this, and each contains its share of gut-punches. “How to Reel In” has maybe the most regimented narrative on the album, chronicling the story of a girl named Suzie who runs away from her home at age fifteen and meets a shady, but streetwise young man in Providence, Rhode Island. Within another line, we learn that “she finally escaped with her son just as I had turned three.” It is those little passing jabs that cut deepest. We learn so much about their relationship from that singular line: that the boy preyed on Suzie’s innocence, giving her cause to escape his possessive grasp. We also learn that the song is being narrated by her three-year-old son, who ultimately comes back to face his estranged father as an adult, in a tense meeting where they share an incredibly touching moment that may symbolize the mending of their relationship. It is a remarkably powerful story told with incredible precision.
There are other songs that have much less distinguishable plot fixtures, but are similarly resonant. One of the album’s sprawling epics, “Arrangements Made” is ambient and disarmingly beautiful, detailing a nameless subject’s nerve-wracking flight back to her home, where she will surely have to answer to some unfinished business among her old friends. Her fear is illustrated by her nervous absorption of every detail – the fading city lights, the passing time zones – and her dark, spotty memories of past encounters. The song (and really most of the album) is a masterclass in showing people facing their pasts and owning up to them, or trying to run and hide with the suffocation bearing down on them.
The entirety of the album is not this heady or intricate; there are some great moments of levity too. One of the best tracks on here is the loud, infectious powerhouse “The New Rise of Labor”, which is Norfolk & Western’s foray into Thermals-esque rock freakouts. There are also two bizarre instrumental tracks that break up some of the denser songs: “Rehearsing La Dolce Vida”, which is a short, giddy accordion tune that sounds like something that would play at a stereotypical Italian restaurant; and the more fully-realized “Atget Waltz”, a romantic, celebratory Victorian extravaganza of pianos, accordions, and thunderous horns.
The Unsung Colony is something to behold. It is an album that punishes the impatient, for sure. It is the slowest variety of slow-burns, but it pays dividends when establishing the delicate tales it tries to tell. This album is capable of waxing poetic about the days of old while simultaneously ducking in fear returning to the past and actually owning up to it. In fact, the album is practically an anachronism, these stories that stare into the fearful hearts of the modern man come to us on the backs of melodies from deep in the vaults of history.