When the world isn’t rending itself into whatever lies beyond this time of change serving as a too-real reminder that metamorphosis is one terribly excruciating experience, my best friend and I manage to attend at least one concert together a year like we have since college. She is reliably the only other person who loves a lot of important-to-me bands, and, with the geographical advantage of living accessibly close to two major cities on our side, there’s usually an embarrassment of options ensuring our tradition endures.
We had a solid streak of seeing Matt Pond PA in NYC in the years leading up to their final shows, especially the 10th-anniversary concerts for what remain some of my all-time most-loved albums. (This is not a story about mpPA, though, so gushing about one of my favorite and most consistently satisfying songwriters since high school will have to wait.) For at least one of those shows, cellist Shawn Alpay was on strings duty for the band; he also opened one of them as Completions, which is basically a dude, a cello, and some hauntingly, devastatingly beautiful songs.
It was love at first note. Part of what instantly endeared mpPA to me was the lush layer of strings in their songs, and here was an opening act with a string instrument taking the co-starring role. Damn right the album I downloaded as soon as I got home dominated my musical selections for days as a mournful cello and heartfelt lyrics not only complemented the bleakness of a Midatlantic mid-December but also made it somehow better. The stripped-down songs where understatement and metaphors and fleeting but significant peeks at bigger stories did the work of half a band perfectly suited the starkness of those days before winter proper settles in for three months of playing Russian roulette with seasonal depression.
As I learn a new album, certain tunes emerge as early favorites, and this self-titled collection of seven achingly unassuming ones all asserted the individual raw emotion filling each song’s nooks with a speed that stood in bold contrast to each of their unique takes on meditative melancholy and cautious hope.
A cover of “A Case of You” just wrecked me right from the start. Most of my previous exposure to Joni Mitchell’s songs is exclusively through “Love Actually” so I’m already bringing all kinds of secondhand emotional wreckage to any experience with them, but couching it within an album of original straight-from-the heart songs gave it an additional shot of what is already one of music’s greatest assets: unifying every listener through an experience unique to the artist but universally accessible in its themes and feelings.
“A Case of You” is wonderfully ambiguous in its title but unassailable in its sense of loss and regret and growing distance. I heard this version with my angstiest, most indulgently self-obsessed years behind me, but it reminded me of how real, visceral heartbreak comes with that rapturous abandonment of decorum in favor of just leaning into every feeling as it comes. It is one of those pains that forges an unlucky soul in a fire that picks at each and every old wound, cauterizes them only when the agony has reached its crescendo, and gradually inures the afflicted heart so the next time isn’t as ruinous in this particular way. It is terrible and interminable in its throes but stylized agony on the other end, with the power to poke at that same inclination toward romantic revisionism in others if you can pin down the right images.
And, let’s be honest, anything that can evoke some of my favorite lyrics from my favorite Decemberists’ song (“The Engine Driver,” because HELL YES I’m biased toward anything that confirms my bias toward writers as elegantly suffering prisoners of their emotions) is going to endear itself to me, and this song had me at:
“I remember that time you told me, you said
‘Love is touching souls’
Surely you touched mine, ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time…”