Album art is sometimes completely arbitrary, a pretty picture to grab attention and convince you to part with your hard earned cash. But it can sometimes offer a wonderfully succinct summation of the material within, hinting at something intangible, some mood or sense within the music. The cover of Quiet Energies, the new album from Jonas Bonnetta’s Evening Hymns, does just that, especially when looked at as the third in a sequence. If you take the mist on the cover of début album Spirit Guides as metaphorical sadness encroaching on an otherwise beautiful scene, and read the all-consuming fog of Spectral Dusk in the same manner, then you can assume (correctly) that Quiet Energies is something of a new, positive dawn.
If you haven’t listened to Evening Hymns’ previous records, then you are seriously missing out. Spectral Dusk in particular is one of my all-time favourite albums, an introspective release centring on Bonnetta’s life and mentality in the aftermath of the death of his father. It was an album that came along at a good (or rather bad) time for me and doubtless many others. As I wrote in my preview post:
“I could go on about how Spectral Dusk is brave and heartbreaking and intensely personal, or how it made me feel okay and less alone, or how Evening Hymns, miles from home in a humble Cardiff venue, dredged everything up again to play a quite stunning and draining live set for our pleasure when it would have been easier not to, but I’m sure Bonnetta gets that all the time”.
Writing in such a visceral manner about something so important and intimate can prove a double-edged sword, especially for musicians who must perform the songs for the two or three intervening years in the recording cycle. While the candid lyrics might have proved therapeutic in the weeks and months devoured by the idea (and then reality) of losing his father, having to repeat the same words night after night to roomfuls of strangers must have been exhausting, not to mention becoming an unnatural complication to an already arduous grieving process (“It was never fun”, Bonnetta says of these tours). Furthmore, these songs saw him trying to deal with the grief of losing his father through the wonderful idea that the deceased live on in memories and thoughts and songs (see ‘Cedars’, ‘Cabin in the Burn’ etc.), yet it’s easy to see how such a concept can prevent any emotional progress, especially if the artist sees it as the primary purpose of their work (ie. stopping or changing focus would cause a loved one to slip away, leaving one person responsible).
With this in mind, Quiet Energies feels like a conscious attempt at forward motion. Opener ‘If I Were A Portal’ sounds immediately warmer and bigger, if not the warm spring to Spectral Dusk‘s cold lonely melancholy then at least a mild, [out of sync/seq?] autumn, where death seems less illogical and necessary for continuing life. The pain is still present, but here Bonnetta is at least considering ways to prevent it from overwhelming him: “Wish I was a portal, that I could open up a hole in to my body let it all pour out”. But rather than using distraction, or losing himself in something else, you get the sense he is instead working carefully to learn from his father, not in death but in life.
“Here comes the whispering woman,
there goes the wandering man
you built a house you could die in,
I only now understand.
It’s hard to see things clearly
I took ten steps in the night
I guess it’s best to keep moving
It’s all revealed in good time”
‘Evil Forces’ is a cathartic rock song about escaping pain through finding solitude, speaking of Bonnetta’s retreat into the wilderness of Canada in search of respite (it’s worth noting he recorded the album at his home studio in the Ontario countryside). “I’ll find those silent places… just me in the valley, keeping the secret”, he sings, as if serene open spaces can offer a kind of destructive interference against chaotic internal noise, damping the signal that has been playing over and over in his head. ‘House of Mirrors’ is probably the most upbeat I’ve ever heard Evening Hymns, with its peppy drumbeat adding to the sense of advancement. The song faces up to the worries related to grieving and moving on (“When I was older I thought the memories would rust, thought all the pictures of you would turn to dust”) but is ultimately about being freed by another, cut from the tangle of self-made fears by the simple wonder of human connection. “I spin around, I spin around, I spin around, trapped in a house of mirrors, you were all I feared and you released me”. This is continued on the atmospheric layers of ‘Rescue Teams’, a simple folk song enhanced with drums and ambient swells, a sonic version of the wild. Here Bonnetta is candid and vulnerable but something is different, his lyrics no longer inviting things in but instead letting them go, as if casting words into a wide open sky and allowing peace to fill the space that remains.
‘Oh Man You’ll Walk Again and Again’ deals with the aftermath of Spectral Dusk, the pitfalls of constant touring and the emotional dredging it required, starting with the idealistic purpose of the record (“I was tired of wandering at night in the fields specifically looking of you / I wanted to feel better put my pain into letters”) and descending into reality (“Drove for a year, sang my songs into beers and to be honest it never felt good”). The song feels almost like a Wooden Sky number, introspective heartfelt rock infused with a positive energy, as if sung from a new position of understanding, ending on an ambient interlude. This feeds into ‘Connect The Lines’, which has a piano opening with all the space of the natural world before being joined by elegiac strings and dramatic clattering percussion to form a stark pop ballad in which uncertainty smoulders beneath the surface: “Oh I want to know / will I connect the lines?” Following is ‘All My Life I Have Been Running’, possibly the most certain you will find Evening Hymns, the all-out driving rock song and advert for the new outlook. “I needed to write a ripper – a song with a Tom Petty bridge – about accepting who I am and how I perceive the world” Bonnetta said of the track.
‘Light As a Feather’ closes the album, with a gentle buzzing drone intro that slides slowly into a morose and spacious ambience, before the stoking of simple acoustic guitar and Bonetta’s vocals flare into vivid life. It follows the trend of the previous albums of having a sad slow song to finish, serving to not only reinforce the theme of retreating into the nature but letting us see the good that simplicity allowed, capturing the essence of the album in neat verse:
I am going away.
I have wandered
I have wondered
there’s no reason to stay.
In the canyon
by the river
with my name carved in stone.
Found some solace
found some starlight
found the calm in my soul.
Walked the ridge line
felt the north wind
settled in for the year.
Missed my mother
lasted(?) to springtime
wished my woman was near.
Watched the sunrise,
felt like I could not stay.
Light as a feather
I cut that tether
and I floated away”
Despite loss being the key theme, Quiet Energies sees a shift in focus. The album takes the suffocating, nebulous shadow of grieving and distils it into something small and hard and strangely tactile, a mysterious object that will always be there in your pocket, radiating its secret and peculiar brand of comfort. This isn’t about forgetting death, or even really ‘moving on’, instead its about coming to a deeper understanding of one’s life, about how a person can be so shaped by another, and how such an impact can and should be a source of immense pride and joy, no matter how hard some days can be. In other words, Quiet Energies is about understanding how it is in fact life, not death, which shapes us and our view of the world.