Review Summary: Nobody belongs anywhere, but everybody needs a place to go.
A little bit of backstory will not hurt. Daniel Rossen has enjoyed a dimlight of underground independent scene since the absolute beginnings of this millennium. His first project, Department of Eagles, has over years gained notoriety as undercelebrated folktronica pioneer. Although far from arriving at the height of the style’s popularity, and far from arriving at the height of Department of Eagles’ success, their In Ear Park
to this day stands as one of the most consistent displays of folk sound and electronic production fusions. Its carefree arrangement and minimalist whimsy perhaps best exemplifies contemporary indie folk and chamber’s most renowned features, all aided by ghostly vocal performances of Daniel and Fred Nicolaus (later of also greatly underrated Golden Suits). It would have been it for the young, timid Rossen, doom at the perils of undervalued indie darlings’ world, hoping to be rightfully rediscovered decades later. It would have been it, had it not been for his second project, Grizzly Bear, to take off as much as it did. Daniel is certainly not the sole force behind that band, but seeing the underlying patterns in song-writing and style of both his bands, as well as his newest solo foray, one cannot help but pick up certain similarities. Whether those are his unique vision shining through and guiding the projects or the projects’ shaping Daniel is up for debate. Grizzly Bear was a manic hit, as far as indie world is concerned, producing several pedantically crafted fashionable albums in their long career, barely ever settling for anything below their high expectations of quality. As influential as they were, as poignant as their voice was, one does not think of Grizzly Bear as individual musicians, rather as a collective.
This truth of collective creativity was a crux of Daniel Rossen’s initial release of Silent Hour/Golden Mile
. That EP was recorded amidst the shifting atmosphere of Grizzly Bear, being force-released under his own name as a last resort. Daniel took over recording reigns and could not envision the five songs being lumped in with other Grizzly Bear material, precisely due to their being his own songs, not Grizzly Bear’s. At the time of production, Rossen was amid moving to a small town for familial life. You Belong There
comes ten years later with the question “Was it worth it?” What did he gain in becoming a middle-aged rural family man? Perhaps questions of missed fame and fortune plague his mind on occasion, perhaps even regrets over past mistakes or career he hoped to escape, but which only grew more exhausting. Perhaps indeed his clocks are ticking half past nine and he wishes to prove to himself more than anybody else that his legacy is secure, his decisions were ultimately correct, even if not good, his voice has been heard, and where he is, he belongs there.
Even at their most mythical (like “Waves of Rye”), both Department of Eagles and Grizzly Bear maintain the indie of it all as a constant. Chugging rock-isms are evergreens. Although fitting Daniel’s gentle voice quite perfectly, his gentle personality is often left somewhat compromised. You Belong There
most notably differs from anything either of the bands ever made in its purely acoustic, rustic, haunting features. If one is to analyse and compare all of the projects for common similarities in hopes to find approach specific for Daniel, one will certainly find fairytale-like prolonged strumming guitar patterns. Title track opener of In Ear Park
is exactly the blueprint for many songs here. Its beautiful instrumentation is something regularly capturing Grizzly Bear and You Belong There
. One will also notice plenty of 12-string guitar or banjo featured ubiquitously. The two instruments are somewhat alike in their sound, perfect for furthering an atmosphere of whimsy and play, mystery and wonder, journey and growth. Daniel’s most personal moments are always nocturnal in sound, featuring distant wailings of strings, disjointed acoustics laminating forefronts, cryptic lyrics of doubt and hope fighting their battles.
Topically, there are more similarities with Rossen’s only previous solo EP than his groups. Structure often takes on the appearance of its absence. Many songs air as a chaotic onslaught of chords and ethereal background arrangement. That is not exactly the case. All has a purpose, all belongs where it is. The title track or “Celia” both are stripped of any instantly clear melody, relying mostly on Daniel’s mellifluous voice. They sound more like crumbling monuments in the distance, observed by accepting gentle souls from safety. The two lead singles, “Shadow in the Frame” and “Unpeopled Space” have the most in terms of accessible melodic backbone. Theirs is the role of centrepieces. They set the stage and narrative themes, while all other tracks jump off.
A dominant thread lining the album is themes. Specific melodic and harmonic tidbits sprinkled throughout tying together key narrative moments, hopeful in sound, striking their desperate melancholy like molten blades. Melodic progression at every reference to “world” is beautiful, most likely showing Daniel’s resentment and fear of some larger world, both physical and artistic, which he escaped and has sheltered himself from, now revising, what was it that he actually was so afraid of. Opening “It’s a Passage” and longevous “Keeper and Kin” centre their cores around this theme, though to severely different effects. “It’s a Passage” reads as hopeful start in reigniting one’s passions for where they are, referencing “Frozen soil / Where once we ran
” and confidently suggesting “Start(ing) again
”. Rural life can be as exhilarating as relaxing, its mundanity over long periods of time test even the tamest of personalities and make them question their place. But Daniel here chooses to look brightly at these lands he has inhabited for ten years, viewing every challenge as a passage. Whereas ”Keeper and Kin”, both a counterpart and a counterargument to “It’s a Passage”, presents enjoyment and hope in spite of the land in question. Mind you, this is not a reference to political land, rather a physical actual place of home and hearth one over time begins to doubt is truly theirs to belong.
Aforementioned cuts “Unpeopled Space” and “Celia” speak of the same literal place and thus sound like serenades and expressions of anxiety for the same thing. The former is a grandiose veil of thunder. There sits a persistent menace of solitude, isolation, and joy from quietness, busy-keeping around the house. The latter moves from the solace of quietness, the place where no people can be found, to that which is inside the house: the family. This family could eventually prove him right in moving where he did. Perhaps, as the album’s closer “Repeat the Pattern” states, they might even continue this lifestyle, unable to picture their future families brought about anywhere else. In moving to New York’s more remote outskirts and then to Santa Fe’s quieting dryness, Daniel has abandoned the crowded busy life of the cities that have hitherto marked his biography. He is a native Los Angelan, moving to New York’s noisiest part for education and subsequent residence. At middle age he looks back at the rowdy and scandalous days of his youth, his work, his friends. Ponders a question of purpose, as we all do at that moment, ultimately finding reassuring brightness, but dizzying sorrow for things past as well.
Forcefully reassuring and uncertain, rather than hopeful and nostalgic, is how Daniel increasingly views his home and his place. Adventure dwindles, family settles, life stagnates, realisation sets in that this is the direction of no return. But Daniel is always a calm and civil creature, tackling matters of self-worth with grace and experience age brings, while acknowledging that the best is what we make of it. He focuses on various positives, inconsequential to the world, but weighing a planet’s worth of mass to him. Birth of his daughter, as described on “Shadow in the Frame”, posits the world not caring about her, but reassuring that he will. Because that’s what matters. The world did not and will not care about him, but she will. Caress of this reassurance is enough to lift the spirits of any tamed heart. The exact same chord progression that lined that song kicks off and dominates “I’ll Wait For Your Visit”. It reads at first as a bitter reunion of two former kins perhaps coming from Daniel’s experience or anxiety over a future encounter. However, given its musical motif taken from “Shadow in the Frame”, it could also be read as a continuation of the anxiety over how his daughter will live. What if he doesn’t do a good enough job as a parent? What if she grows to resent him for whatever reason? What if his decisions for her are all or mostly wrong and will end disastrously? On “I’ll Wait For Your Visit” he therefore envisions a scene, where his adult daughter - presumably Celia referenced several times on the album - plans on reconnecting with her father and what awkward, difficult reunion that could be.
Clearly Rossen did not make an album now, some twenty years into his professional career, at a point of void, lacking hopeful prospects, hoping for new perspectives and career opportunities. Instead, his purposefully chaotic You Belong There
works wonders to wrap up the two decades of uniqueness so misunderstood, overlooked, yet influential. Unlike to his first EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile
, all material here has its purpose and desired effect. Quite ironically so, considering Daniel himself dedicated this album to his uncertainty and impression of remaining a footnote’s mention for the history at large. But he is not. Not to his daughter. Not to his wife. However superficially, not to those whom his music inspired and pushed forward. Nobody has a guaranteed place in history books, nobody will receive all the desired answers for their questions, every self-doubt is justified one way or another. One should not forget, however, that every such dour moment has a root of good or a blossom of hope. Ignoring it will do you no good. Finding it can mean all the difference. I am glad that Daniel has seemingly found it. I hope you find it too.