Sunday, March 6, 2016

William Fitzsimmons - Lions

William Fitzsimmons has made a career out of writing songs characterized by gradual grace and understated beauty. Arriving on the scene in 2005, in the wake of Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Fitzsimmons capitalized on a lot of the qualities that have made Sam Beam one of the most revered and mysterious singer/songwriters of the 21st century. From his soft unassuming vocals to his slow-burn acoustic melodies, right down to his long bushy beard, Fitzsimmons always seemed a bit like Beam’s darker twin. In the years that have elapsed since that first disc, however, Fitzsimmons and Beam have wandered in different musical directions. While both have experimented a bit with fuller sonic terrain and interesting electronic textures, Beam’s last few albums have shown a full embrace of 1970s jazz, soul, funk, and folk-rock, whereas Fitzsimmons have mostly continued to focus on pleasing folk lullabies.

On Lions, Fitzsimmons’ fifth full-length LP, the songwriter isn’t so much exploring new territory as he is refining old ground. The result is the kind of album that most of us wish Sam Beam would make these days, but know he never will again. It’s an unapologetically gorgeous collection of fragile, well-crafted folk songs, a welcome example of straight-ahead singer/songwriter music in an age when most of the indie singer/songwriters from the last decade or so – from Justin Vernon to Sufjan Stevens to Sam Beam himself – have made a point of challenging their basic genre elements. Throughout this record, we get ginger travis-picking acoustics, soft and delicate female harmonies, and brief string section breaks throughout – often all in the same song, as with the starkly beautiful “Blood Chest.” We also get plenty of wonderfully sparse arrangements, like “Brandon,” which finds its basis in little more than a circuitous capoed guitar line, or album closer “Speak,” the album’s requisite reverb-drenched piano ballad.

Lions isn’t all about lo-fi musical textures, however. Fitzsimmons frequently fleshes out his songs with plentiful instrumentation, not in the loud, overbearing jam-band manner that Sam Beam has become known for in recent years, but with the same subtlety and restraint that marked The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine’s first full-band record. The extra musical flourishes are perhaps best displayed by “Took,” a song that starts with bongo drums and settles quickly into a comfortable rhythmic patter. Instead of William’s preferred acoustic guitars, the song’s spider web of sound is built almost entirely from electric instruments, though you’d have a hard time realizing it from how they are played. Electric piano and soft percussion provide an ambient foundation, with a muted electric guitar playing the role of the bass and another electric guitar providing chiming grace notes atop the texture. In practice, the song’s arrangement probably qualifies as minimalistic, but the production (courtesy of Chris Walla, doing some of his finest and most subtle work ever) – as well as the focus on William’s gentle, breathy baritone – allows the song to grow and build as it moves forward, sprouting new sonic tendrils with every passing moment until it reaches a surprisingly lush conclusion.

This method of sonic build is something that Fitzsimmons uses frequently throughout Lions to turn his songs into something more than acoustic lullabies (though he never sacrifices the nostalgia and innocence inherent in their soft and unhurried charm). Layers of acoustic guitar – one playing steady strums and another picking an arpeggiated accompaniment – blend with barely-there bass and striking vocal harmonies to turn “Hold On” into a number that truly envelopes you when you listen on headphones. “From You” balances heartbeat organs with sweeping electric guitar lines, while “Centralia” itself begins with a fractious, buzzsaw guitar burst before dissolving into another broken and lonesome acoustic ballad. These small sonic touches do a lot of work on Lions to prevent the album from succumbing to the “one long song” syndrome from which folk artists in Fitsimmons’ vein often suffer. After all, William’s vocal and songwriting styles rarely allow him to break free from the balladic vein that is so obviously his comfort zone, and as lovely as his songs are as standalones, I’ve often had issues in the past where his albums grew stagnant for me somewhere in the middle. Lions largely avoids those pitfalls, and it’s largely Walla's production and the instrumentation that Fitsimmons uses to fill out the songs that keeps the record interesting.

Lions also rises above the trappings of acoustic singer/songwriter fatigue by having a feeling of momentum and destination. Fitzsimmons saves the two best songs on the album – and arguably his two best songs ever – for the penultimate slots, and both add a world of climactic heft to what easily could have become a relatively weightless set of songs. The first, called “Sister,” is a like a prototype of what an acoustic ballad should be, a lovely, aching tune graced by distant vocal harmonies and plentiful reverb that makes the whole thing sound like a pleasant spring breeze. When Fitzsimmons sings about “the traces of the girl that [he] once knew” on the chorus, it’s chilling stuff, forcing a wistful remembrance of all of the people – family, friends, lovers, and flames – who we’ve let slip out of our lives over the years. It’s a number worthy of plentiful re-listens and repeated mixtape slots.

The same can be said for the set’s title track, a song that wrings haunting and hypnotic devastation out of the same template of simplistic acoustic guitar loops, hushed vocals, and steady crescendos that Fitzsimmons uses throughout this record. Born to two blind parents, music has always been more than just sound to Fitzsimmons. Rather, it’s been a method of communication, a cathartic vehicle for personal emotions, and a remarkably therapeutic art. It speaks to the quality of “Lions” that it manages to encompass all of those things into a single track. As standalone piece, “Lions” is both soothing and heartbreaking. It’s a song that you can envision singing you off to sleep at the end of a good day or playing in your car, working to calm you down and to give you the strength to keep driving after you’re suddenly stricken by the worst news imaginable. It's one of those songs that can morph to fit a million different moments of happiness and pain, and it's arguably the best thing I've heard this year for that reason.

In a press release for this album, Fitzsimmons said that the past few years – the years in which this album came together – were “wonderful, painful, long, incredibly brief, and more educational than any I’ve ever lived before.” Reading that statement, it’s impossible to doubt that some very personal and incredibly specific impetuses inspired not only “Lions,” but every song on this disc. But Fitzsimmons is a guy who writes with only enough specificity to strike a resonant chord, leaving plentiful abstraction so that his listeners can interpret the songs how they see fit. It’s difficult to hear these lyrics and derive precisely what inspired them – a sharp contrast to this year’s other folk triumph, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, which is all about the specificity and meticulous little details. Instead, these are songs that you have to fill with your own experiences, and that’s certainly true of “Lions.” Lyrics like “And you remind me of the breath that I drew for you” and “There’s lions between us/They cut us to pieces/And before the sun came/Forgotten our old ways,” they hit hard. They’re poetic and nostalgic and painful, and the way they hit me – the guy who gets to relate them back to his own experiences – the way they take me back in time to moments from the fabric of my past, it’s both addicting and agonizing. That’s a good descriptor for this album in general, and it’s something that I think will bring me back to it for a long time. After all, these songs may be quiet and unassuming, based more on textured moods than hooks or detailed lyrics, but once they take root, it's tough to stop listening.

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