I first saw Denison Witmer perform in the spring of 2006 in some horrible east-of-LA venue. It was the kind of dark place you frequent when you’re fifteen, seeing local hardcore bands, and not the kind of place where you hang out in your twenties listening to 70s-inspired singer-songwriter folky pop, as I was doing.
When the show ended, I convinced my fiance that we needed to say hi to Denison. We had decided to play an instrumental version of his song “Are You a Dreamer?” in our wedding, and I thought it might encourage him to know how much we liked it. The poor guy was so surprised that he didn’t quite know how to respond — he just started filling our arms with free copies of all the CDs he had at the merch table, and we slipped out into the sunshine.
After nearly a decade of listening to Witmer’s music, playing it at my wedding and as lullabies for my firstborn child, it still resonates. Last week Asthmatic Kitty released Witmer’s newest offering, a self-titled LP recorded at his own studio, The Honey Jar, in Brooklyn. Stylistically, the album hits all the notes we’ve come to expect from a Denison Witmer album; intricate guitar, dreamy, meditative rhythms, lyrics both obscure and relatable, and collaboration from friends like Sufjan Stevens and Don Peris.
But beneath the deceptively simple melodies, these songs are some of Witmer’s finest and most mature works, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen in style and phrasing. The album bears the marks of a fifteen year apprenticeship to the “constant muse,” of diligent work at the craft of songwriting, and of depth born of adult experiences – marriage, fatherhood, and rootedness. In many of the songs, Witmer explores what it means to grow up, and to assume your adult identity.
In “Keep Moving, Brother, Keep Moving Sister,” he wonders what it is that creates identity:
I consider my name
The one I’m given and the one I became
And the difference between
Hangs inside the stars my love
In “Born Without the Words,” Witmer talks about the value of “filling the space you’ve been given” instead of just wishing you were somewhere else. He envisions growing older as a kind of birth:
Pushing my way out of the ground
I’m ready for it
I’ve grown too old to die young now
I’m better for it
In a few songs, Witmer struggles with how to take yourself seriously without taking yourself too seriously. In the shortest but most haunting track, “Let Go a Little,” Witmer sings
I was in my garden
Water pouring from my hands
I turned around and there you stood
You were transparent and you said,
“Why are you so precious about everything?
Let go a little.”
But on the final track, the refrain reminds the listener to
Take yourself seriously
In this album, Witmer gives us more of himself than he has yet – startlingly personal revelations about self-doubt, love, vocation, and growing older. At first listen, these songs are lovely, meditative easy listening – something you could fall asleep to – but they end up keeping you awake at night wondering whether you’re taking your life seriously enough, whether you’re giving enough to the ones you love. This is an album of gentle encouragement as well as piercing insight for those of us nearing midlife and trying to figure out how to grow up gracefully, and it’s Witmer’s best album yet. I’ll be listening to it for a long while.