Last year Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) broke up his band and disappeared Thoreau-style into a log cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin. Armed with little more than a firewood ax, an acoustic guitar, and some home recording equipment he emerged a few months later with For Emma, Forever Ago – an album that perfectly expressed the pain of a difficult break-up and the isolation of a cold and lonely winter. The communal appreciation that the album has received in the months since its (re)release is in stark contrast to the reclusive nature from which it was created. It’s a dichotomy that comes with albums of such convincing, brutal honesty – whether it’s to commiserate or to be able to acknowledge they “got it better than that guy,” people are helplessly drawn to the misery of others.
Soltero’s You’re No Dream has a similar back story to Bon Iver’s album, and could very well find itself with a similar reception. After the full band sound of 2005’s Hell Train, Soltero singer-songwriter Tim Howard decided to strip down his songs and record a simpler, more personal follow-up. As the liner notes say, he set up shop in a Philadelphia house and started borrowing instruments from friends. What resulted is a brooding, dark folk album meant for late night listens in isolation. But that’s where the commonalities to Bon Iver end—Soltero’s sound is more akin to the trippy, slow-folk of Beach House than Vernon’s rustic soul. The desperate little songs from You’re No Dream unravel as though from a dream, gently imposing their subtle melodies through repeated listens.
Howard’s deep whisper of a voice doesn’t show a great deal of range, but it does suit his introspective songs well. His vocals come cloaked in reverb and, combined with the gauzy atmospherics, give You’re No Dream a hazy, dream-like palette. This is music built around a sustained mood and mystique—like something created out of some pretty severe sleep deprivation. Opener “Honey Say It” begins the album in an understated manner with rolling acoustic guitar, whistling, and a disarming melody. Howard sings about how a “cold feeling got me through the year,” a theme that is revisited in “Out At The Wall” when he sings “I was made for this kind of weather.” That song moves through several different melodic sections, combining a strong narrative with some unexpected musical lefts and rights. And just like that, You’re No Dream has established the mood and pace it carries through everything that follows.
As a whole, Howard’s lyrics probably won’t knock you out, but he does manage to drop a line or two per song that may. In “Drag-Out Blues” the line “when I’m beside you, I am beside myself” may read like romantic earnestness, but Howard’s subtle play on words makes one question the song’s true intent. Later, the sweet folk melody of “Sinkhole” is brought home by an even sweeter sentiment in its closing line (this time without the intended double meaning)—”and today, I’d marry you tomorrow.” It’s a love song alright, but more of one from a manic depressive than a hopeless romantic. “Prick On The Prowl” is just as ominous and sexually explicit as I See A Darkness-era Will Oldham. Its music could score a dark-forest stalker movie, but it’s offset by lines like “tonight I will drink myself out of my skull/ Drink until my dick cannot stand up.” But it’s the opening line of “Ol’ Holiday” that catches the overriding theme of You’re No Dream most succinctly—”you have given me a gift/ It’s a fog and it doesn’t lift.”
The title You’re No Dream itself seems like an uneasy self-reassurance that the current condition of the songwriter is in fact real, and not the result of some sort of murky dream. The album dances between these two places—waking life and sleep—in a way that doesn’t feel completely comfortable in either state. It is a dark and stunningly subtle record that is lightened by its closing song, one that houses its prettiest melody but reveals just where this narrator is coming from. “Lemon Car” is a love song of the highest order, with a central line that seems to be ripped straight from the heart. When he sings “you’re the only one I ever loved/ You’re the only one who ever loved me back,” there is a sense that he’s ending this medicated song cycle with some glimmer of hope, a revelation that it hasn’t always been this bad. Then you realize he’s singing a love song to his automobile, pleading with it to tell him “how this highway feels,” and all you can do is say damn, I’m glad I don’t have it as bad as that guy.