Nadjiwan Harnesses the Cosmic Power of Prog Rock on 'Star Nation'
Published Jun 02, 2021Toronto-based musician Nadjiwan's latest album, Star Nation, tells a mighty tale of a journey from Earth to distant planets and back. It opens hopefully, feeling like sun streaming through a foggy dawn, all cymbals and faint piano — aptly, the opening track is called "Into the Abyss" — and closes with pomp and grandeur, with a roaring tune called, aptly again, "Homecoming." It's a unique and electric, familiar but different experience that Star Nation shares, one clothed masterfully in prog rock splendour, and elevated by the heft of project mastermind Marc Meriläinen's perspective and knowledge. Part genre reinvention — recalling but also crucially reimagining something like, say, The Dark Side of the Moon — and part poetic storytelling, Star Nation is an enveloping, interstellar journey on which Nadjiwan serves as a confident and comforting guide.
Meriläinen is of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. Among other of the stories he learned through his culture were stories of star people; Star Nation, Meriläinen has said, is in part the result of stories and experiences shared with him by his mother, Hilda Nadjiwan. On this album, Meriläinen has taken inspiration from his mother's and culture's stories, and has gone on to create a fictional universe that houses his own new tales, new contributions. Indeed, each track on the record is titled as though it were a chapter within a larger narrative, and it has its own mood, attitude, message — 10 tracks come together to make up an album that is deeply profound, multilayered as any canonical text.
For example, "Dark Forest Theory" is a rock masterpiece, with a driving bass line, roaring guitar, and an ominous message. "Can you see them, can you hear them?" Meriläinen's voice refrains, singing of something difficult to see or hear but that is an indisputable threat, going on to warn, "if you run you better be fast," in an almost snarl. This track seems to have two characters, one the dangerous pursuer and one the frightened, whispering pursued — both are played by Meriläinen, his voice changing with each character's desires.
Each track's title is a beautiful complement to what it contains. "The Planets" is a jazzy, mellow delight. "Spiraling through stardust, always moving, never resting, seeking to join the light, trying to outrun the night," Meriläinen speaks on this track, whose trumpets sound with an almost Lynchian bent. On many tracks, Meriläinen showcases his strength as a singer, weaving in his Indigenous heritage throughout via language and also through the versatility of his vocal range. "While the universe boasts infinite wonders and resources, our lives do not," he speaks, "and when the end comes, what do we know, what have we learned? Who are you now? The answer lies deep inside, deep within our own cosmos." Everything is pain and beauty at once as we are hurled through space, our lives, Meriläinen says. This is a beautiful track that is existential uncertainty wrapped in a gauzy, jazzy sound that makes the listener feel excited to learn the universe's answers.
The tracks together tell us of our finiteness, fallibility, smallness, our pain wrought unto ourselves and others, while juxtaposing these — through words and music — with the glory and glittery resoluteness of the universe. A track that takes sympathy on our suffering is mid-album highlight "The Ghosts We Leave Behind," where a certain mightiness is at work against the narrator's message. Meriläinen's voice is raw and soft as he sings "sometimes words are kind, and sometimes they break the heart." He seems to understand that tales of how the world work have the power to sap us of our individual power, and so Meriläinen is here to console on this track, speaking of all we do to find meaning in the world.
Meriläinen sings heartbreakingly of each our tremendous endeavours to find union, to keep from getting lost, to preserve ourselves through songs and stories. But as crucial as his words are, they compete to be heard against the beauty of the music: the blooms of a gently-plucked electric guitar and clash of silvery percussions, which come as waves, threatening to drown out Meriläinen's voice at times. This track is powerful enough to make you weep, even as it takes care of you. Meanwhile, "Around the Sun" is blazing, its rock flavoured by leather and chains. If the sun could write a rock song, this track would be it.
This album is one that Nadjiwan crafted with care and precision, with each track contributing something different while still hewing to the album's thesis of helping us understand the surrounding vast space. This album is expertly produced and thoughtfully arranged, with each track intricately and carefully woven into the next and fleshed out to contain its own mighty narrative. Star Nation is deeply nostalgic in its prog rock leanings, but also so refreshingly new by virtue of Meriläinen's beautiful, vast tales and keen eye. This record is a pocket-sized journey through being and nothingness, one that only Nadjiwan could take us on. (Independent)