reviewed by Michael Thomas
The first thing I noticed Shawn William Clarke’s previous record, William, was its tranquility. Clarke knows how to nail quiet moments, the kind of gentle folk music you can imagine being written in a cabin several kilometres from anything. It was a quiet and gorgeous record.
TOPAZ is a distinct departure from the sound of his previous record, though Clarke is still excellent at being quiet and thoughtful, even though his acoustic guitar is now replaced with an electric one. We got a taste of what this album would sound like with the pretty “Autumn in New Brunswick” (with Olenka Krakus on backup vocals) a few months ago, but as a whole the album is a lot more than the kind of countrified record you could score your road trip to.
The album flows between more meditative pieces and dreamlike wanderings, especially highlighted by the same guitar chords heard in opener “Back to Breath” and closer “Gros Morne.” The former is lyric-less, just a buildup of woodwinds and those enigmatic guitar chords, while in the latter Clarke openly acknowledges he might be dreaming. His voice has the slightest echo, as though he’s singing the song to a big empty room, his sparse strumming the only sound other than his voice.
What Clarke chooses to meditate on leads to some great storytelling (he’s always been great at that), like in “The Tourists.” New York City is a magical place to some, but here Clarke notices the lest glamorous aspects of the big city. It’s expensive, there’s cockroaches; he even notices a rat on the subway and he tells the listeners exactly which stop the rat gets off at. Speaking of rodents, Clarke noticing a mouse is the impetus for “Mouse, Not a Man,” where a mouse heads toward a man in the distance. Clarke wonders how the man will react, and eventually muses long enough to come to poignant human realizations. “I’ve had problems understanding strong men,” he sings. “They mask their emotions behind obligations.” The song gets an added boost from Merival‘s extremely expressive vocals later on.
Simple moments and complex ones; TOPAZ has them both. “Young in Love (At the End of the World)” is a pretty, quiet duet with Abigail Lapell, and it coexists on the same album with “Anxiety,” the most adventurous song on the album. True to its name, the song at first touches on wanting to shut yourself away from the world and “hiding” behind sad songs and a microphone. Even as it repeats the line “I’ll be a well of constant gladness, shield my eyes from fear and sadness,” the song still sounds gentle, until it’s not. Suddenly things get louder, and by the time the wild saxophone cuts in, the song has descended into utter chaos. It’s absolutely thrilling.
TOPAZ was definitely a risk given Clarke’s quieter songs in the past, but he manages to enter a more crowded sonic arena without losing what made him unique in the first place.
Top Tracks: “The Tourists”; “Anxiety”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)