The upcoming release of multi-talented artist Gabriel Birnbaum’s whimsical album Not Alone – inspired by Neil Young’s quick and improvisational recording process and featuring such professional and accomplished musicians as Will Graefe (Okkervil River, Star Rover), Adam Brisbin (Sam Evian, Jolie Holland) and Jason Nazary (Bear In Heaven, Anteloper) – promised a unique and considered creation. The travelled musician has scored film, played huge festivals, and routinely makes small-gig appearances across a wide range of musical genres. For all the mileage and experience, Not Alone is what one could hope for: an intimate, well-executed, reflective record not without some beauty.
“Not Alone” serves the record as its name-holder well – it is a quintessential, roving autumn jaunt with a soothing heartland sound. Ambient tremolo guitars feature in the song, pushing the sound from all corners, per se, but acoustic twangs and a cyclical but active bassline (in addition to a very full ensemble, worthy of such a composer as Birnbaum) round out the tune to great effect. Lyrically, the song is simple but carries reassurance and some whim too; according to a press release, Birnbaum states it’s about “the little rush you get when a text message makes your phone light up with the name of the person you love.” Altogether, the song is sweet, energetic, and carries some thrust – it softly plucks at the heartstrings.
Next up is “Stack the Miles”, a rather cryptic song that seems to suggest, with reference to its lyrics, the intrepid spirit of reflection upon an enterprising life full of change. Various scenes are described in a rather stream-of-consciousness manner. The constant, beat-like plucking of an acoustic guitar plays an almost equally percussive role instrumentally, and aesthetically mimics the rain mentioned in some of the first lines; “without even a desire for desire, watch the rain rearrange this alphabet in the infinite, meaningless, and stack the miles, I hope it’s enough”. Tremolo guitars offer a supportive, watery feel to this puddle of reflection.
“Mistakes” might be the record’s first track aptly described as “fun”. It opens with a confident, distorted guitar riff reminding one of The White Stripes’ classic “Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me” (2001). An assertive drum kit and swaggering, fuzzy solo give this tune a hard-rock edge – jaunty piano and bumpy bass certainly contribute to this song about absence and regret – “there are no other days”.
One of the most immediately gratifying aspects of the fourth track, “I Got Friends” is the subtle but haunting slide guitar, which is perhaps the defining mark of the song and its message. “I Got Friends” is, in contrast to “Mistakes”, abjectly vulnerable; of course, “Mistakes” is vulnerable enough, but this is a truly somber rendering. When the song’s sheer sobriety is held in comparison to the perhaps “pleasantly delivered” regretfulness of “Mistakes”, we yet more clearly uncover a very present sense of failed self-consolation.
In “Archives”, Birnbaum’s soft, sweet, even doleful voice simply makes the song. It is one of the less interesting songs on the record, but still carries a poetic musing: “when they shutter the archives, what will become of me?” As self-consolation is the quiet but indelible theme of “I Got Friends”, self-preservation seems to similarly pervade “Archives”. Compositionally, Birnbaum’s decision to introduce a saxophone toward the closure of tune proves excellent, as it musically escalates the alarm of impending loss. In existential fashion, he is trying to “save (him)self from the tragedy of an end”.
“Blue Kentucky Mile” is a high-point for the album, and the apex of the song is a soulful solo by Will Graefe, which is, as Birnbaum himself described, “luminous and stark as a neon sign floating by on the highway at midnight”. The song – really as is generally the whole of the record – reminiscent of The War On Drugs’ slower, more acoustic work (see “Suffering” and “In Reverse” off 2014’s Lost In The Dream) in its tone and wandering mood.
The seventh track is “Comeback Song” which is appropriately upbeat and uplifting, given the subject matter aptly indicated by the title. The gist of the song? “Everyone deserves a comeback song”. Love, of course, plays a central role in the deliverance of the message; “kiss me on a block… kiss me on the wrist… everybody deserves a comeback song”. The victory is dilated – “the streets reclaimed, the city’s saved”. Once again, distorted guitars feature. At this point on the record, the listener is aware of his or her having surf successive themes of regret, consolation, preservation and redemption. All the while, the themes have been rather effortlessly broached by Birnbaum – certainly an artistic accomplishment.
“Lose My Head” is a sinuous song with some playful guitar work. The main body of the song is filled out by rich acoustic chords and an active percussion section. The song is airy and fresh, and while the better part of the tune, starting from the beginning, is “energetically measured,” it comes to a monumentally intense end, climbing with increased pace to an effervescent conclusion. “I won’t lose my head,” Birnbaum sings over and over, as if convincing, assuring, or willing himself – or perhaps a complex concoction of each these and possibly more.
“Oh Jesus” is the last song on Not Alone, taking a prayerful shape; “oh, Jesus, I’m scared to die yet”. Life’s difficulties are, in an existential way, described expositorily. “I’ve been a fool, I’ve been a fool,” is the sad but honest confession. Even for an artist as perceptibly open as Birnbaum, this song seems dramatically confessional. Perhaps, though, if we’re to take the song as the rear bookend of a record entitled Not Alone, we may read into the possibility of a subtly expressed hope and consolation that, in the confession – perhaps in the song – there is at the very least a remedy for loneliness.
Not Alone is a masterfully conceived album, as Birnbaum clearly achieves the aesthetic he sought instrumentally, thematically and lyrically, and without compromising. The instrumental arrangements are multi-dimensional and, while they might be open to critique for lack of colour, Birnbaum’s self-stated vision for creating an autumnal record seems to validate the album’s greyishness. In addition, the thematic material circulates in tight orbit around shadowy existential discomfit and anxiety, which are fittingly accompanied by darker music when bleak and confessional. Spliced into these themes are small vignettes of imagery and reflection with some poetic sensibility important to the persona of the record; and when the writing seems to lack much poetry, it has honesty and soul.
While Not Alone is simple and straightforward in execution, themes of existential importance gracefully appear in cathartically artistic fashion. Even as he grapples with loneliness and anxiety, Birnbaum is clearly in touch with himself and his music.
Not Alone is released Friday 22nd November via Arrowhawk Records.