Published Feb 02, 2017What place do quiet songs of personal heartbreak, betrayal and inner turmoil have when the outside world presents catastrophe after catastrophe? I've been asking myself that question a lot recently, shocked that I still have room for personal disappointments and regret — and yes, they do they often feel like inner catastrophes. In the face of political turmoil and injustice, are love songs frivolous? Do they matter?
Enter JUNO-award winning Haligonian Rose Cousins, whose sad, still, vulnerable fourth album Natural Conclusion has nothing to do with what's going on right now politically; this just happens to be its release week. The record was produced by Joe Henry and engineered by Ryan Freeland, the same team behind Henry's wonderful Shine a Light album with Billy Bragg last year, of train songs about hobos and vagabonds. Natural Conclusion has a different focus and feel, but commonalities exist: both are intimate, acoustic and beautiful in tone.
This is Cousins at her most small and stark. It's full of love poems made into piano ballads, characterized by a sustained mood and repeated melodic patterns that bolster the sense of lingering. It's a family of closely connected songs that, together, seem to make up a requiem for a relationship, a familiar journey from wild hurt and blame to forgiveness and grace and then, finally, to a quiet admittance that you'll never really let the person who broke your heart go. Not really.
Cousins intentionally injects the collection with a bit of musical variety that's not obvious on first listen: "Chains" is raw, funky, upbeat, bluesy; "My Friend" (the shortest song on the album) sounds like an old jazz tune; and there's a hint of the Celtic on pathetic fallacy-assisted "Donoughmore," where the heartache gains perspective with oceanic distance.
But the sameyness — which is the album's greatest flaw on first listen — is actually not such a problem once you delve deeper into it. Natural Conclusion reminds me of some of the best emotional piano-based albums of the '90s, albums whose repeatability hinged on a sustained mood, the subtleties and creaks and cracks and crevices becoming more apparent as you get to know the record better.
Recorded in Toronto at Noble Street Studios, Cousins' band — let's call them her atmosphere team — more than assist: Jay Bellerose on gently billowing drums, Asa Brosius on mid-sky steel guitar brushstrokes and David Piltch, whose upright bass has moments of prominence, all evoke some stirring movement in Cousins' stillness. Yet it's the piano ballads, which I suspect would translate nicely to the stage, that get me: "White Flag" and "Tender Is the Man," particularly.
Cousins, who's funny in her stage banter, despite or perhaps as a foil to her dead-serious songwriting, has an exceptionally clear, big voice, and she's going intentionally small in these performances. These are big-small songs with only a little melisma and a lot of whole notes.
Natural Conclusion's motto could be this line from "Donoughmore": "Everything I feel / Revealed." Of course, that's not possible, but Cousins courageously tries to share honestly here; she invites us into the stillness with her, to come in out of the cold and listen to her sad songs. (Outside)