By Max Modell
When Bear’s Den released Islands, in 2014, they had an immediate impact on me with their emotive acoustic sound. A well-crafted, nostalgic album, it was the beginning of a relationship with Bear’s Den which has defined my musical life. While Islands had the Bear’s Den identity, the sonic pallet of the album felt familiar. This changed with the release of Red Earth and the Pouring Rain, a much grander album, in which the band expanded their sonic pallet to incorporate synths and electric guitars, incorporating their folk roots, but with a defined contemporary personality. This meant expectations were high when the band first teased So That You Might Hear Me.
The first tease of the album came on 26th April, when the band dropped two singles, ‘Fuel on the Fire’ and ‘Blankets of Sorrow’. These two songs offered a distinct sonic contrast which would go on to define the album. ‘Fuel on the Fire’ embraced new electronic elements, combining drum machines, synths and electric guitar on an epic scale. While many of these elements were contained on Red Earth and the Pouring Rain, with this song they embrace the electro-folk sound more fully than ever. The lust synths are gone, replaced by harsher, more aggressive ones, paired with beats which pulsate like nothing I have heard from Bear’s Den before. ‘Fuel on the Fire’ also introduces the theme of self-destructive isolation within a relationship, which runs throughout the album.
In juxtaposition, ‘Blankets of Sorrow’, has a more personal guitar sound, remonstrant of Islands, particularly the warm harmonies which prompt flashbacks to ‘Bad Blood’. This introduces the second key theme of the album, connecting with someone who is no longer there. The track is undeniably powerful, heart-wrenching and hopeful in the way only Bear’s Den can be. It will linger on your mind long after you have finished listening. The track also acts a closing note of the album, revealing the thematic significance of “So That You Might Hear Me”.
The album opens with a bang with ‘Hiding Bottles’, a song which begins with simple finger-picked guitar, before exploding into life with trashing electric guitars and a pulsating background synth line, both of which create a live feeling to the track, which is not present on the rest of the album. This is the first sign that the production on this album is highly inconsistent, with each song given the space to explore its own sonic idea. While this kind of experimentation within defined limits has been a consistent feature of Bear’s Den music, credit has to go to producer Phil Ek, who has achieved similar feats in the past with bands like Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty, but never quite as successfully as on this project.
My favourite song on the record is ‘Breaker/Keeper’. The track offers a heartbreaking snapshot of a relationship tinged by depression, exploring how love can bond two people on a journey of suffering, sustaining them in the darkest times, while destroying them from the inside out. This point is poetically illustrated by the line “My breaker, my keeper”, a description of the protagonist’s lover. These themes are complemented by restrained production, with the synths of ‘Fuel on the Fire’ replaced by minimalist guitar and piano lines, drawing attention away from the production and towards the lyrics. While an undeniably sad song, it emphasises the supremacy love can have, despite the darkness which sometimes comes with it.
‘Not Every River’ acts as the thematic centrepiece of the album. Not everything has a resolution, but everything has a journey. Davie and Jones capture this sentiment in just two verses, but it’s an idea which exists in the background of every song on the album. In many ways ‘Not Every River’ acts as a toolkit to allow you to understand the record, providing the emotional skills needed to access the rest of the album. Sonically, the song is slightly unnerving, while the shape of the melody is broadly consistent, it harmonically shifts with each phrase, disconcerting you. This adds to the intrigue of the song, subverting the most basic of expectations with regards to song structure and form.
‘Laurel Wreath’ is the sixth song on the record, and the third single, however, sadly it is also the most disappointing song from the album, feeling like a b-side which didn’t make the cut for Red Earth and the Pouring Rain. While the song is far from bad, and one which has grown on me since its initial release, it still underwhelms when surrounded by the brilliance of the rest of the album. It is, however, redeemed by the chorus, which contains one of the most beautiful lines on the record, “You don’t have to be lonely alone/I’ll be there in a heartbeat”.
This moment of disappointment is short-lived, as ‘Crow’ follows, a close second to ‘Breaker/Keeper’ as the best song on the album. Both in its reflective lyrical content and production style ‘Crow’ is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, specifically the song ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. ‘Crow’ reflects on the death of one of Davie’s Mum’s boyfriends, who lived with him growing up. The song is a memorial to him, celebrating his life, while attempting to reconcile with the fact that his death has left Davie and his Mum behind, combining specific memories with the regrets about the things Davie never said. With all of these elements, the song has all of the components to break even the most stubborn heart. As the song ends, the synths swell in the background and the titular Crow lifts you up and flies away.
So That You Might Hear Me finds poetry in the everyday, and is just that, poetry. If the lyrics were published as a book of poems you would not be disappointed. The writing is thoughtful, quiet, and deeply human. The imagery is so rich and filled with subtext that new details will be drawn out with every listen, intensifying the experience. While not perfect, the album is flawed in the way people are. Once you grow to love it, the flaws disappear, as you are consumed by all of the small details which make this album one of the greatest emotional experiences you’ll have this year.