ALBUM: Strange Trails
ARTIST: Lord Huron
Album release date: April 7, 2015
A Well-Wielded Talent
The first song I heard by mid-west band Lord Huron was “She Lit a Fire.” I was immediately taken by the song: something about the Dante-esque devotion expressed in the lyrics, the delicate and spacious vibe of its tone, and the reverence toward mystery and beauty which bled through the singer’s simple voice caught my attention. I did a little digging around and watched several of their videos, and was delighted to find that not only is Lord Huron interested in presenting music to the world; they’re also interested in visual and narrative art (ala Wes Anderson – their music videos have a fabulist feel). My interest having been sufficiently piqued, I sat down to listen to their latest album, Strange Trails, from front to back, to hear what they have to say.
It became clear to me pretty quickly that frontman and lyricist, Ben Schneider, is a story-teller, a dreamer, and a melancholic. He knows how to wield his creative gifts well: for as much terrain as the album covers, it never feels forced or inauthentic (or too hipster for its own good). I got the feeling that this collection of songs is fashioned just as he wanted it to be, regardless of who might end up hearing it: think Justin Vernon shutting himself away in a cabin for the winter and recording the overflow of his creative solitude, and you’ll get an idea of the effortless – yet intentional – feeling of the Michigan native’s artistry. While I love this kind of unaffected music, it can be hazardous, since you get glimpses into bizarre rooms within the human brain: and Ben Schneider has some rather strange and dark crevices in his noggin (who doesn’t?). No need to be overly apprehensive, though: Schneider never gets too deep, for better or worse, and manages to sound sage and troubled without being too expository, giving you just enough of himself to leave you feeling both vaguely uplifted and unsettled.
Outlaws and Bandits, Oh My
I mentioned Justin Vernon earlier, but don’t be mistaken in thinking that Lord Huron’s latest installment takes after his legacy of whispered falsetto melodies laden with instrumentation that sounds like butterflies weeping. Strange Trails is actually a surprising mix of Americana rock, Appalachian folk, and cinematic story-telling, evoking grainy, yellowed daguerreotypes of outlaws and bandits (Paul Newman is my personal stand-in when thinking of outlaws). Electric guitars, vamped bass lines, tambourines, and multiple other layers coalesce under a spacious umbrella of reverb, lending a certain dreaminess to the project, and beautifully complementing the lyrical content. Tales of unrequited love, forays into darkness and death, bleak considerations of the afterlife, and the quest for ultimate meaning bleed through the collection of songs. At times downright creepy lyrics are ferried across on rather rollicking melodies. Ben Schneider hints at a certain estrangement with truth, at various points – “I have seen what the darkness does: say goodbye to who I was. Follow me into the endless night; I can bring your fears to life. Truth is stranger than my own worst dreams… now the darkness has a hold on me” he sings in Meet Me in the Woods, seemingly to invite his love into the darkness he’s gotten involved in. Perhaps most unsettling of all is the fact that he seems unapologetic about this descent into darkness. Whether or not these themes are meant to be taken as fictional story-telling or factual personal-revelation, I can’t be sure; either way, I advise listening to a handful of these songs with a discriminating ear.
Artistry and Choice: The Cosmic Tension
A friend of mine once expressed that he believes genuine artists are souls of either great virtue or of great vice: whichever god they choose to worship, be it the Living God or the god of their own pleasure, they are people of great passion; and this passion is what inspires and colors their art. I think there’s much truth in that idea, but with a bit more nuance: taking a note from taoism, I’d say most artists are a mixture of passions – some passions being more tapped into the True, Good, and Beautiful; and some being more tapped (or, shall we say, trapped) into the distortion of those transcendentals. Human artists are not angels: they’re broken, sinful people who have an incredible capacity to choose who and how they worship, to choose to become more or less of who they really are and to express that decision through the medium of their art. It is a fascinating thing to hear the glory of artistic passion rightly directed, and to hear the cacophony of it when it misfires: more often than not, you’ll get a little bit of both on this side of heaven, whether you’re listening to music, taking in a painting, or appreciating architecture. The music of Lord Huron is expressive of this cosmic tension, at times soaring into the ache for all that is true and good – “What you’re looking for won’t be found easily … once he’s gazed upon her, a man’s forever changed … ages come and go but her life goes on the same … I’m meant to find the place where all good things begin,” sings our pensive troubadour on La Belle Fleur Savage – and at other moments, dropping into that dangerous curiosity toward darkness with which we are all too familiar and which has never done us any favors. Strange Trails is a worthwhile listen, for its musicality, authenticity, story-telling, and scope.