Even after working in book retail for, dear Lord, thirteen years, I’ve still never been able to understand the fascination that some people have with true crime. Way too many people have crossed my path that have an unhealthy obsession with serial killers, grisly crime scene photos and mafia hits (and I don’t mean the doo-wop kind). I simply can’t watch those basic cable shows about these very subjects, but for some reason, when they’re covered in a musical format, I can’t get enough. Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Sufjan Stevens and Bonnie “Prince” Billy have all won me over with songs that delve into the dark heart of mankind. Maybe it’s the difference of context, the human aspect that comes with an acoustic guitar versus the sensationalistic aspects of books and television, but music somehow makes the gruesome and shocking more palatable, if still a little creepy. The National Lights, a group project for singer / songwriter Jacob Thomas Berns, is the latest to fuel my musical fascination with the otherwise unseemly, creating an entire album-length song cycle about a Midwestern murder.
The location of the subject matter is the Midwest, the feel is more Southern Gothic, but the album was recorded in the Mid Atlantic. Go figure. Although the background of The Dead Will Walk is all over the map, the focus of the album is right on target. Berns’ hushed vocals and acoustic guitar highlight most of this record, which might remind some of Iron & Wine. The subject matter is another story altogether, the kind of story that will keep you up at night checking your doors and windows. Yes, this album is about a murder, but it is also about love, regret and the dark capability in all of us to let our passions rule. “Better For It, Kid” is the album’s opener, finding the narrator / killer in post-act, avoiding apology, yet also seeking some kind of justification. I told you it was creepy. But the song and album are also quite starkly beautiful with delicate guitars, reverent organs and even some rustic banjo. Berns, like Sufjan Stevens in “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” finds the humanity and pathos in his subject, finding subtle beauty in the horrific.
“Mess Around” gets even creepier, possibly recounting the first meeting of the doomed lovers, the female underage, yet they find themselves doing what the title suggests. Also belying the starkness of the subject is Bern’s honeyed voice. Whereas some singers of this ilk, even the ones we really like, tend to whisper, Berns actually sings and quite beautifully. The title track uses the repeated line “Nobody Goes Home” to alternately represent a kind of philosophical maxim and an unveiled threat. It still makes my hair stand on end. “O, Ohio” is one of the highlights, one of those songs that could mean something entirely different out of the context of the album, generally representing a broken relationship, but the last line, “Like those bones in the backyard,” tends to put it into a different perspective. Harmonizing singer Sonya Maria Cotton shines on this track, adding that extra bit of `both sides of the story.’ “Riverbed” finds the narrator feeling sorry for himself, singing “It’s not a bit thing, but babe, this ain’t a big town.”
The more upbeat nature of “Buried Treasure” is truly juxtaposed against some of the darkest lyrics on the entire album, of course making it one of the best songs on the record. Other songs throughout the album seem to find the narrator equating his act with his love for his victim, as if he’s doing her, himself or even the world a favor. These are the darkest kind of people imaginable, those who see themselves as `good,’ and justifying their actions in any number of ways. Berns’ songwriting captures this perfectly, making me wonder just a little bit about his own state of mind. I have a feeling some future girlfriends might as well. There are also strong themes of returning to the earth, with many references to rivers, swamps, dirt, water, nature and animals that somehow connect the songs to something primal, another aspect that makes these songs much more palatable.
It can’t be easy to write songs about murder that a listener can connect with. That’s why only the handful of artists I’ve listed above come to mind. The trick that all seem to have hit upon is to merely write stories about the subjects as people. Gacy’s childhood and Starkweather’s love for his girl are perfect instances of this connection to humanity. Although Berns never quite hits as chilling a moment as Steven’s falsetto “Oh my God,” he finds his pathos in a different way, not by getting in touch with either the victim or the perpetrator’s past, but by merely telling a love story, from first meeting to final act, nothing held back, every feeling of the killer exposed. Without the lyrics, these songs would be enjoyable enough neo-folk, but with the lyrics, it’s an incredible piece of Gothic art. Apparently, the National Lights’ next project highlights songs about the sea. If it’s anywhere near as honest as this album, it’s sure to be great.