Tuesday, November 23

Record Review: Sun Airway [Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, Dead Oceans]

by Rebecca Gayle

Providing one of the most overtly sentimental albums since the Big Pink’s 2009 release, A Brief History of Love, the new Philidelphia duo, Sun Airway, break into the emerging bliss-pop scene with their first-ever album, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, which hit record stores in October.

Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier presents a very sentimental album whose strengths lie in its lyricism and the beautiful imagery that its songs create, but falls short in terms of its inventiveness. Jon Barthmus, the songwriter of the pair that comprises Sun Airway, clearly demonstrates his strength as a painter of words throughout the album. Along with Patrick Marsceill’s music production and mixing, Sun Airway guides the listener through the beautiful sonic and lyrical landscape of the album’s ten tracks, but, in the long run, loses the listener in its ambition and cumbersomeness.

For an album with dedications to Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, and David Foster Wallace, Sun Airway’s lyrical prowess should not come as much of a surprise. Given the general lack of incredibly poetic, lyrically driven albums, however, Barthmus’ songwriting abilities stand out almost immediately. Even in the opening song, “Infinity,” Barthmus immediately paints a beautiful picture of waking up next to his lover: “Woke up as a snowflake on an ocean / I looked over / Saw you floating next to me / Drowned in the moonlight hour.” In “Oh, Naoko” – an absolutely beautiful song that is one of the best of the album – Barthmus brings this imagery up a notch, offering himself to Naoko poetically: “When the winter turns your bed frame into a frail shell / Turns you over to a deep and dark well / I’ll be there just to lasso you the moonshine / In the back of your mind just like a wind chime / I’ll be there when you call my name, Naoko.” Finally, Barthmus captures how difficult life can be some days with the other standout track of the album, “Put the Days Away,” singing, “Trying not to die is so taxing / You take a breath just to let it out again / Waking up is an exercise in trust / … / Trying to live on is so taxing / Just stacking up all those failures and accidents / We’ve thrown away on a mountain of mistakes.”

Although the poetic, imagery-laden lyricism of Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier is certainly its strong point and almost puts Sun Airway into the realm of musical poetry, the same imagery is used so often throughout the album that comparing everything to moonlight, stars, and the night sky becomes rather old and stale after a few listens. Furthermore, it seems as though Barthmus tries too hard on some tracks to turn them into poetic masterpieces and, in doing so, creates songs that come off as forced and rather contrived. For example, although the track, “Swallowed by the Night”, is quite beautiful in its minimalistic, ethereal ambience and subdued vocals, the lyrics seem quite forced. Some of the album’s songs – like the album title itself – also have a tendency get bogged down in their cumbersome words. At times, it even feels as though Barthmus himself is struggling to fit longer, rhyming lyrics into a tempo that is a bit fast for such attempts. After listening to the album several times, it seems that the song’s main chorus, “I’m just looking for a perfect sentence to keep us alive,” is exactly what Sun Airway is preoccupied in doing throughout Nocturne. Even though perfect sentences – and lyrics – are wonderful, they certainly are not the only things needed to keep anything, including an album, alive.

In attempting to create its over-the-top musical poetry, Sun Airway also crosses into trite and cumbersome territory. For example, in “Shared Piano”, the duo try too hard to stick to the piano theme, with, “You stole the ivories / And left me the black keys / … / I miss the majors / But I’m taken by the minors,” overusing the imagery and extending the metaphor so much that it seems overworked and insincere. As the album progresses, the incredibly sentimental nature of Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandeliers also becomes less charming and begins to feel sappy and contrived, as if the album itself is a lover trying too desperately to win over the object of his or her affections – in this case, the listener. Although the unity that Sun Airway attempts to create within songs and across Nocturne as a whole is admirable, sometimes being slightly more direct and less entrenched in a certain theme is what makes songs exciting, unpredictable, and, well, just great.

Perhaps listening to the album several times in a row is the culprit of its seeming lyrically forced after a point, but even good poetry – if it is truly good – should be able to overcome the staleness of multiple reads. In this situation, the musical dimension of an album has the potential to breathe some additional life into it and to distract a bit from the album’s repeated images and sappiness. For Nocturne, however, the musical production is quite gentle and subdued, reflecting the sentimentality of the album beautifully and focusing the listener’s attention on its poetic lyricism, but failing to contribute any musical innovation that could revitalize the album’s collection of tracks. Still, however, the poetic prowess and imagery-laden nature of Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier is rarely seen in the music world. The album as a whole, too, provides a quite beautiful collection of metaphorical, sentimental imagery that is pleasant to listen to, but, overall, does not offer any really substantial or enduring material – unless the listener plans to use the album to woo a lover or two, in which case, Nocturne would certainly shine.

Oh Naoko

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