Review Summary: Open all your doors and windows, let the lightning in your house.
I think what keeps bringing me back to Grandfather is the religious imagery. Mason Maggio and Christian Van Deurs may be God-fearing men, but they do not fear the same God that you and I know of. He is a jaded man with a lazy eye, and he answers every prayer a century late. The duo's first album, Grandfather, is centered around a man who has been devout to the lord above his whole life, but he doesn't know why. The unquestioned faith in a God that our narrator has more and more reservations about makes for an album that feels like it's eroding. Grandfather is a crossroads of belief -- a conflict that has challenged anyone that has set foot in a church -- and it makes every happy chord look more like a facade than genuine, and every sad word weigh twice as much.
Grandfather opens up to the listener literally with the line "Open all your doors and windows, let the lightning in your house." Of course, they're not talking to you, but this is the moment that Mason Maggio is the most intimate with the listener throughout the whole album. All of the other songs are stories about themselves or others, this is the only time that Grandfather looks right at you in a sort of sly break of the fourth wall, only for you to realize that they are thinking about someone else entirely. Paired with the textured synths and the layers of guitars, Tigers on Trains makes quite an impression in the first 30 seconds of the album. The Grammarian is essentially a perfect opener for Grandfather: it is able to introduce the theme of the album, the production is actually stunning and deep, the whole song is quiet and meditative. They don't reveal their folk roots until the next song, The Grammarian is simply about gathering your thoughts and collecting yourself before you cross "The Great Peconic Canyon."
Diving past The Grammarian to the rest of the album, Sea Weed's more pronounced and upbeat guitar chords instantly give away the band's folk influences. But it's the lyrical shift that really sticks out here. The first line of Sea Weed is "I died on Good Friday from swimming in smoke, it was worth it," later: "and getting reborn, well it hurts like a bitch. I do not recommend it." Not exactly what you’d hear at a Sunday mass. There’s this sort of religious cynicism that runs through the album, but none of it is outright against Christianity, it comes across as a man who questions his religion constantly but still finds ways to keep his faith. There's a line in Ship Shape that sums up the character's beliefs: "I don’t believe that there is any system set up to apportion bad luck/It chooses a man from a line up at random, and feeds on his soul day and night/Well it takes some nerve to assume that unlucky soul could be you/So I'll just keep those thoughts to myself." There's no reason to the greater power's decisions, and he almost finds some sort of peace with that.
At least, it seems that way until the album reaches Painted Face. Similar to the sharp change in style from the opening song to the second, after Reverend William Buckland ends Grandfather takes on a new form for Painted Face, because Painted Face is the black hole that this entire album orbits around. The synths are back from before, but they are low and hollow; the guitars are simple and haunting. But like before, the biggest change is the lyrics. There is not a single religious reference in this song (and this is also the only song to mention the character's grandfather). The entire weight of the song, and the center of the entire album, is the confession that "There is no ghostly honor, to keep me facing straight. There is no balance for my deadweight." The character we've been following for the past 7 songs finally admits that his belief is a lie, it's the album's climax and lowest point simultaneously.
After essentially plummeting into the Marianas Trench for Painted Face, the rest of the album is inexplicably jovial, and it's not until the album's closer, A Year in the Garden Shed, that we get any closure on our protagonist's internal conflict: "Death is not a curse, it's the only thing that's keeping us alive." It's exactly the ambiguous, somewhat depressing realization that would make any other person uncomfortable, but Tigers on Trains is able to take solace in. And if it keeps you alive, and keeps you facing forward, then that's as good as God, isn't it?
Please listen to this album. Not only is it a beautiful proof-of-concept that folk and indie can share the stage and become more than a sum of their parts, but it's a full story told in small, seemingly unconnected anecdotes. Tigers on Trains had (have? They haven't released anything since 2014…) a great way of making their music feel important without coming out and saying exactly what the meaning of it all is, and that is a talent that should never go overlooked. If you take Mason Maggio's advice from the very start of Grandfather; if you open all of your doors and windows, Tigers on Trains will show you true beauty. They will show you their God, and their light. You will see their fears and their answers. It’s not an easy path to inner peace, but Tigers on Trains have somehow documented it perfectly on Grandfather, whether or not that’s what they actually set out to do.