on 5 July 2009
If depression were considered a virtue, then The Black Heart Procession would be elected to write the national anthem. Essentially made up by former Three Mile Pilot members and multi-instrumentalists Tobias Nathaniel and Pall Jenkins, along with drummer Mario Rubalcaba, the band has moved away from TMP's angsty nineties rock, heading in much darker and minimalist territory. Imagine Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds without the danger, early Scott Walker without the grand orchestrations and Sixteen Horsepower without the banjo and the searing preaches and you're getting close. The Black Heart Procession's universe is one of the pre-color age, as their songs are vignettes of loss and sadness in which only black and a bit of white are allowed; the latter only for shading purposes. The darkness is not of the grating, dissonant kind, though. It's not the kind of foreboding that sends shivers down your spine or hurts your ears. Instead, you get a kind of bare-boned drama, crawling dirges and pitch-black romanticism that nearly drowns in its own suffocating misery. Usually concentrated around simple piano melodies, the songs are fleshed out with accordion, acoustic guitar, organ, vibraphone and a singing saw, which conjures settings of ghost towns, scarred faces that haven't felt emotion in a long, long time and desolate graveyards in ruins. Imagine a weary, plaintive voice on top of that and you're ready to go sulking in the corner.
This stylistic minimalism with maximum impact is something you should've seen coming, as the band retains that philosophy on all levels. Their next albums would be called 2 and Three, while the word "heart" seems to be a recurring favorite. Similarly, the album's mood remains amazingly consistent throughout, even though fans of more upbeat material will prefer calling it relentlessly monotonous. Dominant are songs that try to creep along under the weight of their own melancholy: it's shocking how effectively "The Old King of Summer" manages to portray lost love with only a silly piano melody, accordion and some saw. More ominous and dramatic is "Stitched to My Heart," an expressionist and funereal soundtrack to a story of heartbreak, emptiness and despair that could've been a total misfire in the hands of a less gifted band. Other droning songs like "Heart without a Home" and "The Waiter" are equally good at setting a mood and continuing it. The album's best tracks, however, arrive when the band disbands the funeral pace and gets the tempo up a bit. The piano hammering and nearly martial drum rhythms of "Release My Heart" evoke images of, well, a procession of ghosts marching towards possible salvation, while "Blue Water - Black Heart" almost seems like an attempt at writing a pop song compared to the rest of the material. However, a never-shifting mood can only work if the material that's presented is of a stellar level and unfortunately, the album's second half lacks the focus to achieve this, with especially the minutes of closer "A Heart the Size of a Horse" descending into a murky repetitiveness. Still, if you consider that 1's songs were written in the three months prior to the recording and recorded, mixed and mastered in 11 days, it's no surprise that their sophomore album would easily surpass this one.