Monday, June 8, 2015

Creativity, Instrumental Diversity And Incredible Voice Fail To Sell The Experimental The Way It Feels.

The Good: Impressive vocals, Music is interesting, One or two superlative tracks
The Bad: A number of surprisingly bad rhymes/lyrics, Repetitive, Some familiar licks
The Basics: At long last, The Way It Feels by Heather Nova drops . . . but it might not find its audience.

Whenever I meet an artist or performer, I try to have a question ready for them, something I can ask that they probably have never been asked before. I have a pretty good record with that; the number of actors who have actually stopped to consider the question I ask them outnumbers the ones for whom a response was readily available. I had the pleasure to meet Heather Nova at my very first concert experience almost twenty years ago (oh my! time . . .) and I was more flabbergasted and uncomfortable with myself than anything, so I did not have a question - but I did get her to stop and appear shocked when I stuttered out that "London Rain" was the second best song ever written and performed in the English language. After listening to The Way It Feels, an album I have been eagerly anticipating for almost a year, I finally have the question that I would ask Ms. Nova should I encounter her again:

"What kind of music do you want to write now?"

The Way It Feels might seem to answer that; it is Heather Nova's fan-funded album that she has retained complete creative control over, so it should be exactly what she wants to create. Unfortunately, it is all over the map and, as an album, it works less well than any of her prior studio releases.

I have an interesting relationship with the works of Heather Nova: her music has spoken to me at virtually ever major milestone of my life. Oyster excited me in college and as I wrote my first novels, virtually every song on Siren inspired me. South arrived on my doorstep almost simultaneous with the disintegration of my first marriage (it is, truly, Heather Nova's break-up album!) and Redbird (an album with a lot of renewal themes) reached me as I found new love. I would have to stretch to figure out how The Way It Feels fits into my life - it is a very creative album and, if I were to force the connection, I would note that I have begun work on a new novel (my first in years). The connection completely collapses, though, when I consider that I knew from before I penned the first line exactly where the novel would end; after listening to The Way It Feels eight times, I still have no idea what the hell I've heard.

At one moment, The Way It Feels is genius, the next it is entirely derivative of Nova's previous works. Here there is a line that is painful in the tortured metaphor, but then bang! there's the line that connects with me the way that "Ride" did (I first listened to The Jasmine Flower streaming online with headphones on at a local library and the moment Heather Nova sung "I don't know if I took a wrong turn / 'Cause the birds don't fly low like they used to" from "Ride," I found myself in tears. Like streaming down my cheeks tears that are very undignified in a public setting.). Unfortunately for fans of Heather Nova who have waited so very long for it, The Way It Feels is not the next great Heather Nova album.

It is also not terrible.

With fourteen tracks clocking in over an hour (for the deluxe version with the two bonus tracks that Nova produced for fans who supported the album via PledgeMusic), The Way It Feels might be a real mixed bag, but it is definitely the work of singer-songwriter Heather Nova. All of the songs are written by Heather Nova and she provides all of the primary vocals. She also plays electric or acoustic guitar on many of the songs on The Way It Feels.

Instrumentally, The Way It Feels is probably Nova's most experimental and diverse album since Glowstars. Heather Nova plays with moody instrumentation creating a frequently murky album and she lets her vocals explode before the accompaniment. The Way It Feels features pianos, keyboards, programming, banjos, horns, the pedal steel and, on more than one track, the ukulele. No two tracks on The Way It Feels truly sound like one another, though there are occasional chords or riffs that feel overly familiar for fans of Heather Nova. There's a large portion of "Women's Hands" that sounds like it could have been off Oyster ("Sugar" or "Verona"). And the instrumentation on "Girl On The Mountain" is evocative of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know." "Lie Down In The Bed You've Made" sounds like Heather Nova's attempt (successful!) at creating a classic Country song. But unlike South, which utilized a huge range of musical styles, The Way It Feels sounds deliberately experimental and not all of those experiments are successful and the album does not come together as a cohesive, interesting, listening experience - it sounds more cobbled together from dissonant singles.

Vocally, The Way It Feels is almost exactly what one expects of a Heather Nova album. The album is driven by Heather Nova's vocals and she has incredible range, as always. Her voice soars clearly into the soprano range and she makes every word she sings clear and beautiful. Her vocals are offset by deep basslines and murky tones in the instrumentation on The Way It Feels and the contrast is auditorily intriguing. The only real vocal surprise comes on "Sleeping Dogs" when her male accompanist adds his resonating bass vocals to Nova's and the harmony is intense and haunting (and makes the song worth listening to).

With so much praise, it is hard to see how I could start so critical of The Way It Feels. The reason for that is the lyrics. And before the critiques, it is well worth noting that Heather Nova wrote another perfect single, which appears on The Way It Feels. That song is "On My Radar." Yes, Nova reduces a troubled relationship perfectly with the simple poetics "I'm never gonna be the one that you want / That's the feeling I get / I'm never gonna light up the fire in your heart / That's the feeling I get, everytime" ("On My Radar"). Yeah, the race is on now: will a beloved character kill themselves to that song? will it be playing at a bar in a television show when a character has the drunken realization that their marriage is over? or will some distraught fan use that as their suicide song? It's that powerful - from the imagery "I know just where you fly / As constant as the North Star / As distant in your mind / And the signal's getting weaker" ("On My Radar") to the explicit revelation of the incongruent relationship.

Unfortunately, "On My Radar" is an exception to the rule on The Way It Feels. As I sat in the dark for my first listen to The Way It Feels, I found myself having a troubling experience: I cringed at some of the lines of Heather Nova. I felt I might be being a little bitchy when Nova sings "Tree houses, in the trees" ("Treehouse") and my thought after being so engaged by the opening music, was "Well, of course?! Where the hell else are tree houses going to be?!" And I could very much recognize that my failure to connect with "Girl On The Mountain" was because of the way Sense8 (season one is reviewed here!) affected me; Nova's lines "Every little thing, every little thing'll be good again / Wind is strong, but don't you sway / You're going to be that girl on the mountain top" are completely incongruent with the repeated Sense8 image of Riley freezing to death on the mountain top. That's a me issue, I get that.

But it's hard not to cringe when hearing the lines "The dogs are sleeping, they say let sleeping dogs lie / But I say wake them up, and see if they can fly / I want you want me like the river wants the sea" ("Sleeping Dogs"). I get there's the classic "fly" for "run," but it just sounds ridiculous. And while I'm fine with metaphor (obviously, in "On My Radar", the "you" is not actually flying!), rivers do not "want" anything; water flows as a function of volume, force and gravity. The poetry is so forced, it literally made me cringe.

Similarly, I was pleased that The Way It Feels gave me a second chance with "The Archaeologist" (a song Nova teased for her fans on one of her live albums available through her PledgeMusic campaign). The fully produced version sounds great and it's a memorable song for the sound. And I get that the song is about exposing truths with a partner. That's solid. But it's still not Nova's best-written song; there is an utterly annoying and confusing subject shift throughout the song. "The Archaeologist" begs the object of the listener's affection to "Dig down, dig down we must / I'm not afraid of going deep / I'll be the archaeologist / You just have to put your faith in me." But this comes after an extended Pompeii metaphor and before the subject turns singular - "I've been dreaming, longing, waiting, to be found" ("The Archaeologist"). So . . . I need you to put your faith in me, in order to uncover what is going on with us so you can find me? It's the rhetorical knot that essentially asks the buried victims of Pompeii to save the life of an excavator.

Heather Nova is a master singer-songwriter, but what she's trying to say on The Way It Feels is nowhere near as clear as with her prior works. Several of her songs sound like she had a great line or two to get out and she tried to assemble a song around it or she was playing with instruments and melodies and she attempted to construct a vocal accompaniment to it. The result is an experimental album that goes off in a number of very different directions, coalesces for a single song, and only hints at the true genius of Heather Nova.

The best song is "On My Radar" (by a surprisingly far margin!) and as much as I wanted to, I could not figure out the weak track because virtually every track had something superlative going for it, even if it didn't entirely grab me (the bonus track "Serengeti" felt pretty derivative and those who do not buy the deluxe digital version will not be missing anything by not having that track).

For other Heather Nova album reviews, please be sure to check out:
These Walls
Live From The Milky Way
The Sorrowjoy (Audio Version)
The Jasmine Flower
300 Days At Sea
Live In Cologne 2/26/2014
Live In Leuven 12/10/10
Live In Eindhoven 2011


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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