Advent is the season of anticipation, and yet it so often prompts recollection. You look back on the past year; you look back, maybe especially if you had a Christian childhood (the hardest kind of childhood for a Christian to have), at those holidays when you were little.
Harrison Lemke, a singer/songwriter whose haunting Genesis-inspired albums I wrote about here and here, has an Advent album called Thy Tender Care, whose songs are set pretty much entirely in memory. The memory of being in someone else’s house, in the guest room; the memory of being inside at night when the wind howls outside, surrounded by your family, the kind of situation where you should feel safe and warm and grateful to be where you are and not out there, and yet “the wind presses up against the window/to have a look at us” and suddenly you know that whatever is outside there in the cold is inside you as well.
This is an album built of small moments, microcosms. It has a very Mountain Goats feel, which I know I always say about this guy. The moments sometimes feel too small to build a song on–all of the songs feel very fractal, the small piece shaped like the big piece, and that does lead to a certain emotional similarity even when the tempo varies. At times the unwavering focus on depth in small moments felt somewhat self-indulgent to me, an impression deepened by the insistent tired tenderness of most of the album’s back half. I mean, “And friends get sick/though so far mostly friends of friends” is a little self-parodic for this kind of music. Maybe one of your songs should be about an event! A thing that happened!
But I suspect other people will disagree here, finding more variation in the music than I did and more satisfaction in the songs’ cohesive emotional state. It’s an album of the nighttime house, the television flickering, the family leading their separate inner lives all together, the moments when peace and quiet turn inside-out and you know you are going to die someday and wonder whether that should be as frightening as it is.
I loved the guitar toward the end of “Going to Heaven,” shimmering and blurring like highway lights reflecting in pools of dark water. “Empty Days” was one of those too-small songs for me, but I liked the fuzzier vocals, the technological alienation or mediation there. Ditto the sweet rising chorus of Lemkes in “Tired, Waiting.” My favorite song was the most menacing, “Upstairs Room,” but I also loved the first song (“the virgin mother with stars all around her;/a unicorn; a candy cane; santa and his reindeer”) and the unhappy hotel vignette “Seaside Promenade.”
I just realized, after finishing this short review, what Thy Tender Care reminds me of. It’s like a musical version of–and this is very high praise, y’all–Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People, aka that movie where there are no curses and barely a cat but lots of haunting snowy childhood memories.
Image via Wikipedia–illustrating “the wrong type of snow.” Everyone’s a critic.