Review Summary: I am eating a chocolate in bed and it reminded me of this album so
Right album, right time, right? I mean. Stevens’s star, while not perhaps circling in an entirely declinated orbit, is certainly on the wane after several adventurous projects went awry; de Augustine’s ascends, following the release of the accessible and successful Tomb. A lot is made of the relationship between the two, Augustine the purported fosterling and ward to Steven’ largesse, and I offer very lucrative odds on how many reviews will invoke a “master/apprentice” dynamic or use the word “protégé” (odds which my brother lost; the house always wins!) but I don’t think that’s wholly fair to either artist. Augustine’s Swim to the Moon is perhaps the best album I know that wears trackpants around the house, smokes all it’s host’s weed and eats all your biscuits after you offer it one (1) - an entirely different ethos to Stevens’ ever-ironed t-shirt and cap - but, one feels that the two share ecliptic (and elliptic!) co-ordinates, or are making music from the same celestial longitude.
So it immediately becomes clear that, rather than casting a wide net, the two are honing in on the skills that made a collaboration between the two such a tantalising proposition. In many ways it doesn’t reaaaaaaally work. The lofty claim that each song is based on a movie might well be true, but I doubt it will be the hill they’ll die on. The connections with the mentioned films are tenuous at best (Fictional California comes closest to grappling with it’s under-rated source material); frequently based on infelicitous + meretricious interpretations (i.e. Reach Out broadly tackles faith - one might think Wings of Desire is about the same (had one only read the wikipedia synopsis, that is)); figmental at worst. I imagine that had they plucked 14 random film titles from IMDB the results of the album would be much the same. When the two employ vague lyrics in a direct, accumulative way it’s lovely (e.g. ‘don’t be my last call / do you mind that i’m falling part?’ is aching in its simplicity) too frequently they eschew this model in lieu of lofty metaphor that doesn’t make much sense. Two clunkers: “shall we all talk paternal / shall we all talk of the sun”. Personally? I’d rather not. “Now Harryhausen conceived from a cauldron / Wielding Olympus with eyes on the shore”. A thrilling beginning to an epic 4-part fantasy series inspired by Halo perhaps, but as a lyric it made me recoil.
I still really like it! I think it’s really nice and pleasant and warm and gooey! For the most part they play it safe [wines’ note: more on that later oWo] and that’s totally fine! Sonically the record harkens to Seven Swans and Tomb, respectively and respectfully, in essence as well in character. Stevens retains the ability to deftly wield simplicity to emotional effect, while Augustine shows his knack for taking choruses in entirely unexpected melodic and intonated directions while still sounding completely congruous to the verses.
The result isn’t moving, per se, but it is at its best affecting and warm (Reach Out, The Pillar of Souls and Cimmerian Shade exemplify the record at its most beautiful, for my money). It doesn’t stop feeling playful and breezy, and the two of three songs that take tentative steps outside the comfort zone - see (or hear) the reverby, echoey guitars of Back to Oz and It’s Your Own Body and Mind - end up cleaving to the formulaTM in the end. I’m not massively enthralled by the muddled You Give Death a Bad Name, sure, and (This is) the Thing leans a bit too heavily into trite territory, but the soaring choruses and refrained guitars are generally enough to make me break out in a smile. It’s just… nice!
Interestingly, the duo save their best - and their most experimental - until the final two tracks. Cimmerian Shade certainly made me raise an eyebrow - the use of the word autogynephilia is potentially questionable. Skip this if u like, i’m back on my soapbox, but the word used to be gross only in that it pathologised a completely healthy sexual behaviour. It has since been co-opted by anti-trans bigots and TERFS under the veneer of “””science””” to state that trans women derive sexual satisfaction from their gender identification. That said, I think it would be bad faith to assume it bespeaks endorsement and not just representation - the song is focalised through Buffalo Bill’s perspective. Serial killers are an ongoing fascination for Stevens, perhaps because he wants to humanise everyone (a mission i support!!) through music, and while it’s jarring it also features in the most complicated and challenging song on the album by some distance.
[As an aside; is the (completely, emphatically debunked) autogynephilia thing well-known outside of the queer community? While words with such baggage can’t be analysed in any kind of voided vacuum, I wonder what connotations other people have with it, if any? Just a thought. Good faith interpretations are generally >]
It’s followed by the unexpected Lacrimae, a delight featuring guitars that sound detuned, ethereal falsettos a la Blue Bucket of Gold and the most haunting and direct lyric of the album. I wonder whether it could have been structured better. The penultimate and final track feel like songs of an entirely different album. And yet the lyric I mentioned? “Lord, why must this life feel so cruel?”
While the album might not ask many questions, the lyric sheet certainly does. Interrogating and otherwise cross-examining matters of faith, love and how best to live a life with compassion and authenticity is not new territory to Stevens at least, but beneath the almost easy-listening kindness of melodies and harmonies and plucks, this is an album in doubt and flux, hiding its reservations beneath superficial prettiness and elaborate conceits.
Which is why, I guess, I really like that it exists as it is. I appreciate that adjectives I’ve ascribed to it - breezy, warm, pleasant - aren’t exactly superlative. But life, especially now, is hard. It’s hard. It’s ***ing hard and it’s awful and it’s ***. A soothing ointment, even one that works so obviously, seems less an option than a prescribed, vital balm for those of us who eke out meaning in the art we consume and love. The albums strength relies on its accumulation, a barrage of loveliness that one eventually succumbs to in the face of sincerity. I return to the question “Lord why must this life feel so cruel?” and remember that Stevens and Augustine released half the album before the initial release day and have made it as accessible as possible to users of all platforms. This album attempts to posit an answer to its own rhetorical question and asks: what would a world that isn’t cruel but compassionate, and kind, sound like?
I think the answer is: like this.