I like surprises. They remind me that there’s still a world of wonder despite the late onset of adulthood. I’m not so cynical to think that I’ve seen and done it all. Rather, I take responsibility for causing the mundane in my life: I get stuck looking at the same things from the same perspectives. Autopilot may suffice for lawn mowing and driving but it’s definitely not the ticket to a full human experience.
Which brings me to Matt Bauer’s The Jessamine County Book of the Living, an album full of wonder and magic. It’s surreal lyrics, dark tone, and ten-piece orchestra all work together to make dark and creepy forest music. Think of Peter and The Wolf rewritten by Gabriel García Márquez.
There are plenty of artists and musicians who use the surreal in their work to surprise or even shock their audience. But the surreal shouldn’t just leave you thinking that the piece is weird. When used effectively, the surreal constructs a new reality around a scene that would otherwise make no sense. Bauer’s “White Lake” is a perfect example of this:
When I was the white worms
In the rabbit’s side
The only way that I could move
Was eating toward the light
And when I saw what I had done
And saw just what I was
I thought “My word! My word!”
Despite the implausibility of a worm ever considering the spiritual implications of its actions, there is still an emotional impact as we’re drawn into the worm’s perspective. Being able to connect on an emotional level with something as repulsive as a maggot is surrealism executed to its best effect.
Magical realism, surrealism’s first cousin, is a tool often used by anime master Hayao Miyazaki. And the album’s closing track, “Flowering Deer,” is about a character from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The song, with its dark-sounding strings and its magical lyrics, is creepy enough to scare the bejesus out of you, just as the Great Forest Spirit did in the movie.
The Jessamine County Book of the Living is also one of the most ambitious albums I’ve heard lately. Bauer rounded up a host of guest singers, including Jolie Holland, Angel Deradoorian from Dirty Projectors, Mariee Sioux, and Jay and Alex Foote from Welcome Wagon. Further, his orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, and vibraphone doesn’t just accompany him but often takes center stage. To pull off a project of this size — on what was likely a shoe string budget — is pretty remarkable. Also, musically, there’s just a lot of depth here. And imagine the time it took to arrange all of those different parts.
Another intriguing element of the album is that it retains a folk music feel despite the heavy reliance on the orchestra. Perhaps it’s Bauer’s voice, which can sound as deep and full as Richard Buckner’s while also sounding as emotionally raw as Sufjan Stevens. I would like to say that this is my favorite album so far this year but alas, I’m way behind the curve in reviewing it and it was actually released last June. Regardless, this is a very fine album worthy of a heck of a lot more attention then it’s received so far.
Video for “Flowering Deer”
“Morning Stars” by Matt Bauer