It is a thin line that is drawn between sincere expression and bullshit, and those who choose to write and record music with minimal ornamentation and overtly introspective lyrics do more to delineate that line, so far as pop music goes, than any other artists. There is no Spector-esque barrage of sound to hide behind, no soulful swagger, no suspension of seriousness. The artist has to convey, with limited means of embellishment, a sense of desperation. And in this endeavor there is a higher presence of the possibility of seeming as opposed to being — of coming off as overly contrived, as someone consciously posing as something. The ambiguity of this line is something that constantly draws me back to simple, sparely adorned acoustic guitar driven songs; it can become, however ephemerally, clear. Really, whether or not the impression one is given is accurate, true, is far less important than what that impression is. The objection in the end is not to artifice but to the supposed perception of artifice.
The Great Lake Swimmers’ self-titled album is in large part Tony Dekker’s voice and an acoustic guitar. And it decidedly falls on the side of sincerity. The predominant reason for this is Dekker’s world-weary voice, a voice full of earnestness and conviction that what is being expressed is vital. It is the voice of one who, as Dekker sings, feels “stranded and free…alone in a world that is not (his) own.” The song from which that comes, “This Is Not Like Home,” and its lyrics are evident of what the Great Lake Swimmers do: create songs often solemn, often with folksy esoteric lyrics wedded to melodies equally mournful and whimsical.
The extent to which this formula can charm a listener into submission is established by opening track “Moving Pictures, Silent Films.” Over a sea of chirping crickets a plucked guitar begins the languid tune full of abutting images, the most persistent of which is “saving it up and spending it all on moving pictures, silent films, ” persistent not only in its repetition, but in its effect on any amateurish cinephile who knows those strange days of washing away what life has been dealing in a drowsily lit movie theatre. The subtle addition of piano does nothing but add to the atmosphere of the song, as do the steel guitars on the albums later songs.
In its best moments this is an album of headlights dimly illuminating shapes in our minds, just as they do on dark, tree-lined highways. In its lesser moments it is weighed down by literal, direct expressions of feeling. The songs are far better served by lyrics and music that express fragility obliquely. Declarations about being too broken inside to write, play and sing, as well as the imagery of false armor, second skins and useless shields, strike me as too obvious for this band. When instead they revel in subtlety and slowly unfolding songs, one can do nothing but watch as the songs linger shapelessly in the air far after there final notes have died away. The question of sincerity seems long sunken in the ground. One is happy to have forgotten it.
Iron and Wine – The Creek Drank the Cradle
Bonnie Prince Billy – Master and Everyone
Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway