LAVISH DARKNESS, BRILLIANT LIGHT
THE FROZEN OCEAN
2015 / 12 Tracks / 45 minutes
In truth, I’ve sat on this review for awhile. No disrespect to Dave Swanson, the beleaguered voice behind The Frozen Ocean. Sometimes art leaves me speechless. Sometimes an album comes along with sounds that stir my soul. Only sometimes. Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs”, My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”, Interpol’s “Turn On The Bright Lights”, Pedro The Lion’s “Control”, Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes”, Joy Division’s “Closer” come to mind. Pioneering sounds that can only be developed from an artist’s emotional core. Dave Swanson poured his heart for four(!) grueling years on ‘Skeleton Key’, his third solo album and follow-up to 2009’s atmospheric ‘In Exile’. This is one such album that, with its opening notes, causes a chemical shift in my brain – de-tunes it, in fact – and grounds me for its duration. “Skeleton Key” is awash with brooding atmospherics. It’s a quiet behemoth of an album, age-weary and troubled, the product of a man facing his demons in a myriad of wonderfully dissonant indie alt rock. It’s also a complex concept album that most troubadours can only dream of bringing to life. It’s far and away one of the best releases of the year across genres, both Christian and secular.
So what does it sound like? Gorgeous, somber arrangements of electric guitars, lilting keys, heavy bass (the instrument, not the effect), and Swanson’s strong, breathy croon. “In Circles” sets the tone with piano-laden dissonance that would be at home on Radiohead’s “OK Computer”. It’s a disarming, claustrophobic track (“You’ve been saying so long that you don’t know when you’ll be okay again / Trying to find a way out of the cage you built”). “Skeleton Key” follows with the album’s most arresting chorus, dark yet hopeful, menacingly beautiful: “My hands are shaking in the dark / So steady my aim / And I could hear you calling my name / My eyes were blind but now I see / That you’ve been waiting for me / And after all, you hold the skeleton key to me.” Cord cut. Chord struck. “Harvest of My Heart” is a love song for the broken –the introspective ones who find solace in lines like “And I know I’m not easy to love / God knows you’ve tried your best / There are so many things that I haven’t expressed / And I don’t know why.”
“Skeleton Key” is a heavy album. Not heavy like Dave Swanson’s former band, metalcore outfit ‘Life In Your Way’, but rather in the emotional toll it takes on you. Songs do occasionally erupt at the tail end, like on “Grey Town” and “Kerosene”, but for the most part Dave Swanson controls the peaks and wades in the valleys. “Grey Town” works up to a wonderfully powerful coda with swells of guitars and glimmers of hope: “For now we see through a mirror that’s lit dimly / But soon the dust will clear from our eyes / To see the beauty of Your everlasting glory / That we can’t contain in our minds…”. “Kerosene” burns slowly in sad narrative before exploding into the most powerful bridge on the album: “We are tiny worlds of evil born with violence in our blood / Our words can heal the broken and our words can bring a flood.” Even a cover of Credence’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” manages to drown us in the depths of our own emotional oceans. Guitars scream and wail. Bass snaps. Hearts stop. “27” brims with Dire Straits’ smooth blues tremolos. “Light Years” floats atop spacey electronics. “Riverside” hand-claps in the thick air of the Gospel south.
It’s all brooding and brilliant.
But the weightiest tracks are the most minimal. “Northern Lights”, with its barren post-rock scaling, is one of the most stunning songs you’ll hear. Listen to it in the dark with headphones. Look at the night sky and the stars that fill it. Let the ebb and flow wash you clean.
Let the poetry quell you:
Three years alone in your head can do a lot to a man.
Loneliness has long since departed to leave me in peace there.
Memories are like leaves on a tree; the winter’s clouding your thoughts.
Roots are digging deep in your heart, trying to pull it apart.
I hear them saying, “Henry, you’re wrong, there’s nothing out there but sky.”
But I can’t rest until I have seen the Northern Lights.
Of all the things that I miss the most, it must be your face.
And I can’t seem to give up the ghost of what I’ll never replace.
The album’s closer, “Violet”, was written for Swanson’s daughter, and is achingly jaded and beautiful. In just above a whispered falsetto, Swanson sings about the light in her soul shining brighter than all the darkness of the world around her. It’s sad. But like all of his lamentations, it ends with hope: “So when they say it’s the end / Just open your hands / To find that place in the sky / Where beauty resides.”
“Skeleton Key” is an album of reflection and recompense. It dwells deeply in the human condition: loss, pain, mistake, forgiveness. But ultimately it is a testament of beauty. Beauty found in laying burdens down, in seeking heaven, in loving others. In looking past the darkness in our minds and embracing the light around us. It is a stunning achievement for one man. And it’s my absolute favorite album of 2015.
Review by Jason Ramsey