Sunday, September 1, 2013

Album Review: Typhoon - White Lighter

Album Rating: A+
“And everybody knows this is the end / It's now a fashionable woe in a part of conversation.”

So it goes. That’s just one of many resigned stanzas on the latest effort from Oregon-based folk collective Typhoon. There isn’t a better band to deliver the sentiment, either; death has been as prominent in its discography as eggs and bacon ever since the troupe first came to be eight years ago. Yet for all the grave talk, White Lighter positively brims with life and, yes, light. It’s a stunning effort from a stunning band, as Typhoon expands its humble existential ruminations into a bold theatrical statement and one of the best albums of the year.

There’s two big dynamics at play on White Lighter: the first a reflection on death, typical for Typhoon; the second, a bit newer for the band, what 20th century philosopher Victor Frankl would have called a “tragic optimism” in the face of mortality. Of course, this is less a binary than a spectrum, all of which gets explored in detail here. The climax of late-album cut “Hunger & Thirst,” where lead vocalist Kyle Morton begins by listing the different things he could have been, is one example. “I could have been a gold digger, I could have been a gun slinger, I could have been a little bigger...” he sings as the mélange of guitar, strings, and horns behind him stops for half a heartbeat—and in one big swoop, his voice rises to a yowl and the instruments erupt into a blast of sweet summer rain. “But what I am is a silence,” he concludes in a suddenly hushed tone, and that brief spark of catharsis makes way for a prolonged instrumental passage, resolution lurking only in the fog of trumpets floating over the ending.

Much of the album is similarly ambiguous. “Possible Deaths” begins with a bleak outlook (c’mon, “Every star is a possible death” is a tough opening line to top) but gradually layers thoughts upon thoughts to build a more complex approach to death. When Morton sings “It burned out five hundred million years before I saw it,” at song’s midpoint, whether he's lamenting the cruelness of death or his own inability to move beyond it is up to the listener. At the same time, it's clear the band has something to say: perhaps “The Lake” says it best. In its first two verses it builds and builds, a festival of instruments joining the guitar as it strums its time away. Against the mounting tension, Morton recaps a tragic childhood story about sickness, and just before he reaches his lowest point, where he prays that he die and "come back to be anyone else" and apologizes to the family he’s disowned out of vulnerability and fear, the volume has swelled to wash away all of the bitterness and pain in Morton's voice. It’s a cleansing experience, and for once the message couldn’t be clearer: if death is the finish line, Typhoon’s getting there on its own terms.

This newfound sense of optimism in the face of inevitable tragedy gives White Lighter an unprecedented vitality, put to to good use on some of the biggest songs Typhoon's ever written. It certainly lives up to its namesake as an ensemble--every song here is an absolute flurry. “Artificial Light” displays an impressive dynamic range as well as superb songwriting, using structured chaos to navigate all the ways in which we make sense of mortality before getting straight to the truth with one on-the-mark line: “Our eyes are on the flame, just a little white lighter,” Morton realizes as he finishes counting his life experiences. Telling how the song shifts following this epiphany. While the first movement is something of a mad waltz, Morton’s desperate vocals crashing up against the twisted mass of horns, guitar, and brass, it's telling how everything that comes afterwards approaches lullaby. Even Morton begins to find stability as he refocuses onto his fundamental human needs: love, security, and…children?

Interestingly, children are a constant point of reference on White Lighter. Both graduation speech and a premature eulogy, the uncharacteristically upbeat “Young Fathers” explores the parent-child relationship, one life at its start and the other nearing its end. In its chaotic verses, the song packs in enough instruments and vocals for a traveling circus. Yet it pulls back from Morton for a few breaths in between as a beautiful (if anonymous) female voice, his daughter by narrative, enters the dialogue. And while all she has is questions, he's looking on with regret and love, the two tangled in a sort of wistful happiness. Even so, there’s enough room at the end for the kind of full-force blast of exuberance Typhoon does so well, and at the very end, gang vocals get in the last word: “I just called to tell you, I just called to say / Learn all your mistakes, passed down through generations.”

It’s impossible to discuss White Lighter without discussing the various dimensions to the vocals--easily the richest work with them Typhoon has done to date--and what each represents. It’s still band frontman Kyle Morton who gives the band its sprawling heart: his lifelong struggle with Lyme Disease and the paradigm shift that came with it are reflected in his powerful voice. It’s a singular beast, meek and wispy in one moment but furious and explosive in the next. He has the rare gift of being able to sing about his own experiences as if he's singing about his audience's. But then there’s that elusive female voice that recurs throughout the album, a luminous spring breeze to counter the weight of Morton’s morbid thoughts. Finally, Typhoon’s greatest asset, its size, has been fine-tuned as a potent musical weapon on White Lighter, as the band’s use of chorus vocals is as spot-on as it’s ever been. On “Dreams Of Cannibalism,” a reflection on the crushing monotony of society, the backing choir brings gravity to the song's refrain: “Unhand me, I am not a criminal," a dozen voices cry out in a show of solidarity for the song’s martyred hero. Though Typhoon has always done a great job of fleshing out personal struggles, it probes them from a dizzying variety of new perspectives here.

These perspectives come together in an appropriately fiery conclusion. Call “Common Sentiments” the synthesis, “Post Script” the epilogue. The former is a four-minute walk through White Lighter in all its colors, offering some of the album’s most memorable images. With the backing of a relaxed (yet subtly dynamic) folk jam session, Morton walks us through isolation and connection, the magic and the curse of words, and perhaps most sad, the dormant desire to break free from his earthly shackles. When the song crescendos in its final movement, he breaks into a fervent prayer, one he repeats as if his life hangs in the balance: “I will be good, though my body be broken!” It’s his rawest performance on the album and easily one of the most powerful musical moments of the year. In an interesting twist, the finale finds the band revisiting its past, as “Post Script” is a rerecorded version of an obscure demo. It’s a fitting choice, as the song itself is about the passage of time, and the nostalgia brings out the emotional duality of the album. How the natural sadness in Morton’s voice melts against the gentle heat of the guitar. How sad it is to watch the clock count down, to watch all of your lovers leave, yet how much beauty there is when you're in the middle of life and it's all unfolding in front of you.

The best works of art are the ones that humble us, the ones we can always revisit to find that what we know of them has changed right with us. To steal a few words from our friend Frankl: “Consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death?” White Lighter is that rarest of albums, an entire lifetime captured in music. Any attempt at cracking it open utterly eludes me: I can only listen as it is in the moment, and I’m not sure I’d have it any other way.

Track Listing
1. Prelude
2. Artificial Light
3. Young Fathers
4. Morton's Fork
5. Possible Deaths
6. The Lake
7. Dreams Of Cannibalism
8. 100 Years
9. Prosthetic Love
10. Hunger & Thirst
11. Caesar
12. Common Sentiments
13. Post Script

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