Review Summary: A dark, exciting, and intellectually imposing folk opus.The Golden Days are Hard
occupies a difficult space to write about, because it doesn’t conform to very many musical norms. The album is largely a collection of six-to-ten minute folk ballads that gracefully wind through country, punk, and piano rock. Although few will have the luxury of perspective when it comes to having heard Westelaken’s discography, it serves as quite the evolution from their eponymous debut. Westelaken
was exhaustingly entertaining, from raucous screams to trumpet solos. The Golden Days are Hard
dials things back a little, but for what it loses in energy it makes up for in narrative depth and elaborate composition.
This is never clearer than it is on ‘The April Song’ (one of four tracks named after a month – more on that soon) and ‘Grace’. They operate as sibling tracks, with one informing the other. ‘The April Song’ is a haunting folk piece comprised of ambient acoustic picking that ebbs and flows, sporadically swelling with a sense of mortal urgency. Eerie hums breeze across the soundscape like a whisper on the back of your neck, and it's immediately apparent that the subject matter is going to be grim. ‘The April Song’ follows the story of someone who is watching the mother of a close friend succumb to the horrors of dementia/Alzheimer’s disease: “I sat next to your mother, and she called me Joe. A glass of wine hovered inches from her nose...and as my laughter followed, I suppose, I mistook her mistake for a joke. I watched you remind your mom, ‘mother you know he’s at rest.’” As the song glides across its unnerving atmosphere, we witness her continued decline: “I watched you bathe your mom. I washed the wine from her dress” / “All subtlety unveiled, you smile, and cope, and squeeze her palm as you help her into her coat. You were strong. I watched you bury your mom.” It’s a sobering reminder of how fragile life is – this entire world that we’ve constructed within our minds is capable of collapsing without us even being cognizant of it. It’s terrifying. ‘Grace’ appears to tell the same story from the perspective of the mother’s daughter (as sung by Rachel Bellone, of the band Slurry). It almost feels like an emotional postmortem in the wake of ‘The April Song’, as the piano-laden track grapples with the aftermath of this woman’s death: “When I watched my mother die, it didn’t feel graceful / it just felt wasteful.” Bellone delivers a remarkable vocal performance here, and their passion can be felt in each inflection and every melodic bend. It’s this sort of depressing but undeniably human aspect which arguably elevates The Golden Days are Hard
above the band’s debut. The album possesses a bleak charm: it’s hard to listen to because of the feelings that it evokes, but it’s even more difficult to turn away.
Another sign of Westelaken’s maturity and natural evolution is the burgeoning presence of Lucas Temor, whose pianos trickle throughout Golden Days
with poise and sophistication. His contributions course through the record’s veins and become its lifeblood; what the flaring trumpets and screams were to Westelaken
’s eclecticism, Temor’s piano is to The Golden Days are Hard
’s classical refinement. Possibly his most impressive moment comes on ‘The October Song’, where he’s essentially given free rein. A little less than halfway through the track, he composes a breathtaking piano medley that feels like an oasis within the piece’s nine and a half minute journey. Temor plays a major role in tracks like ‘The October Song’, but his efforts can be heard and appreciated at nearly every juncture.
When Westelaken isn’t following the paths of existentialism and elegance, they still find ways to inject The Golden Days are Hard
with an uptick in energy and overall zest. Opener “The January Song’ is one such instance, launching the record’s first couple of minutes out of a cannon with Rob McLay’s spirited drumming, Jordan Seccareccia’s electric guitar riffs, Alex Baigent’s synths/backing vocals, and choral/group chants from Slurry (Rachel Bellone’s band). It feels like the album’s most unifying moment, like a dinner that brings everyone to the table. While ‘The January Song’ feels like a continuation of Westelaken
’s rollicking and upbeat direction, what could be of even more interest is how the band transforms that kind of energy on ‘Mercy, "milk-of-human-kindness"’. In what might be described as a foray into ambient post-hardcore, the song is as powerful as it is disorienting and sweepingly dissonant. It’s an easy highlight here, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s also the group’s most experimental venture to date. Westelaken has a creative appetite like few bands you’ll hear, and ‘Mercy, "milk-of-human-kindness"’ is further proof that the weirder they get, the better they sound.
For as excellent as The Golden Days are Hard
is in nearly every perceivable facet, it wouldn’t be the masterwork that it is without conceptual unity. Loose themes regarding the passage of time/seasons grace the track titles (‘The January Song’, ‘The April Song’, ‘The August Song’, and ‘The October Song’), while the motif of blood – as well as its significance to both life and death – pervades the experience. Even a look at the record’s artwork conveys a lot – it’s a quaint, pastoral, and welcoming image that also has a river of blood flowing through the center. That’s The Golden Days are Hard
: an album that is inviting, but also eerie. ‘Pool of Blood’ might be the best overall representation of the record for that reason. It draws inspiration from the William Degouve de Nuncques painting, which illustrates a pool of blood in the center of a circular path alongside a confessional booth. The painting’s setting is in the rural countryside, with green pastures and swaying trees. Frontman Jordan Seccareccia has gone on record stating how he finds it both frightening and welcoming, a sentiment that he tried to pass on to both the song and the album as a whole: “Those mixups of terror with understanding and musical delicacy with atonal noise are qualities that we really strove to imbue the song’s parent album with.” From the lyrics to the music to their choice of artwork, it’s clear that they’ve succeeded on all fronts.
The Golden Days are Hard
is one of those moments where it’s easy to see the pieces coming together for a band. Westelaken is hardly a household name – in fact, as of this publishing, Westelaken still handwrite all of their lyric booklets and deliver CDs in-person to those who reside in their hometown of Toronto. They have that band-next-door feel, and their endearing obscurity and idiosyncratic mannerisms are matched only by their ability to reinvent their sound on a nearly constant basis. Golden Days
represents their most fully realized evolution yet – a dark, exciting, and intellectually imposing folk opus. Westelaken has proven that the abundant talent and dynamic chemistry on display during their 2018 debut was no fluke; they’ve captured that same lightning this time, only in a different bottle. Hold it in your hands and watch it glow.