reviewed by Michael Thomas
Shortly before writing this review, I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, and in that episode he talked about what makes a good country song. One of his conclusions: specificity. When an image is so specific you can picture it, it packs an emotional wallop. What Giant Hand does is not country music; he describes it as “drone-gospel.” But it’s the tangibility of the images he creates that makes Old Cosmos so special.
The album was recorded with Rolf Klausener (the Acorn) like his previous EP, Starting as People, and you can hear Klausener’s influence in the naturalistic feel of all of the songs here. I described Starting as People as the sound of someone deciding whether to fight a battle or give up altogether. Old Cosmos feels like a continuation in that the decision has mostly been made—Kirk Ramsay is at peace with death and even dying young. But he’s not ready to give up just yet.
As with the previous album, Ramsay goes for simplicity with his instruments. Sometimes it’s a few notes on keys (“Hospital”) or just a picked guitar (“Down by the River”) and Ramsay’s lyrics are given much more room to shine. So many of his words are quotable that I could fill several reviews with his words.
But we’re first introduced to the album with a 90-second intro, set to drone and birds chirping, as a sample of some kind of religious speaker eventually tells us “the world hates you,” over and over again. Death starts in full force with the second song, “Down by the River.” There’s so many heartbreaking images in this song, from Ramsay’s description of his brother and father going on a fishing trip and bringing everything but Ramsay himself. He compares himself to a starving polar bear swimming across the arctic in desperate search of food. In “Key on a String,” Ramsay sings of flying a plane into the sun.
All of this may so far seem like he has a death wish, but in “Spark” his theme becomes clearer. “Dying young or dying old, it doesn’t matter how you go/You’re just some story that might get told by some strangers who knew your name,” Ramsay begins the song, with twinkling guitar backing him up. It’s a tremendously sobering thought, but he expands on it—death will come for us all, so we must find our “spark” and live wisely and kindly, because we know “death is coming under the cover of night.”
In “Coming Down from the Mountains” and “Lost,” Ramsay extends a hand. In the former, he asks that he not be forgotten, and in the latter he sings of swimming out to sea and drowning, then becoming the sea. But he asks for help: “”I need to be guided back where I’m from, I get lost so easily.”
“Nothing Wrong” may be the most passionate song of the bunch, describing someone who has uneven legs and feet and is weaker than the rest. But he sings “I ain’t no sewer rat” and “I ain’t given up on this life yet.” There’s something so musically pleasing in the chorus as Ramsay sings, with his characteristically warbling voice, “There’s nothing wrong with me, goddamnit.”
After an interlude similar to “Intro,” we wrap up the album with “Hospital” and “Final Rest,” where Ramsay talks about dying young and being okay with it. But the songs are not of resignation. He’s okay with dying young (in “Hospital” he prefers that to growing old) but he’s not ready to give in just yet.
Has there ever been an album about death more spiritually fulfilling?
Top Tracks: “Down by the River”; “Spark”; “Nothing Wrong
Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) +*swoop*