Rose Cousins Natural Conclusion
Published Feb 02, 2017What place do quiet songs of personal heartbreak, betrayal and inner turmoil have when the outside world presents catastrophe after catastrophe? I've been asking myself that question a lot recently, shocked that I still have room for personal disappointments and regret — and yes, they do they often feel like inner catastrophes. In the face of political turmoil and injustice, are love songs frivolous? Do they matter?
Enter JUNO-award winning Haligonian Rose Cousins, whose sad, still, vulnerable fourth album Natural Conclusion has nothing to do with what's going on right now politically; this just happens to be its release week. The record was produced by Joe Henry and engineered by Ryan Freeland, the same team behind Henry's wonderful Shine a Light album with Billy Bragg last year, of train songs about hobos and vagabonds. Natural Conclusion has a different focus and feel, but commonalities exist: both are intimate, acoustic and beautiful in tone.
This is Cousins at her most small and stark. It's full of love poems made into piano ballads, characterized by a sustained mood and repeated melodic patterns that bolster the sense of lingering. It's a family of closely connected songs that, together, seem to make up a requiem for a relationship, a familiar journey from wild hurt and blame to forgiveness and grace and then, finally, to a quiet admittance that you'll never really let the person who broke your heart go. Not really.
Cousins intentionally injects the collection with a bit of musical variety that's not obvious on first listen: "Chains" is raw, funky, upbeat, bluesy; "My Friend" (the shortest song on the album) sounds like an old jazz tune; and there's a hint of the Celtic on pathetic fallacy-assisted "Donoughmore," where the heartache gains perspective with oceanic distance.
But the sameyness — which is the album's greatest flaw on first listen — is actually not such a problem once you delve deeper into it. Natural Conclusion reminds me of some of the best emotional piano-based albums of the '90s, albums whose repeatability hinged on a sustained mood, the subtleties and creaks and cracks and crevices becoming more apparent as you get to know the record better.
Recorded in Toronto at Noble Street Studios, Cousins' band — let's call them her atmosphere team — more than assist: Jay Bellerose on gently billowing drums, Asa Brosius on mid-sky steel guitar brushstrokes and David Piltch, whose upright bass has moments of prominence, all evoke some stirring movement in Cousins' stillness. Yet it's the piano ballads, which I suspect would translate nicely to the stage, that get me: "White Flag" and "Tender Is the Man," particularly.
Cousins, who's funny in her stage banter, despite or perhaps as a foil to her dead-serious songwriting, has an exceptionally clear, big voice, and she's going intentionally small in these performances. These are big-small songs with only a little melisma and a lot of whole notes.
Natural Conclusion's motto could be this line from "Donoughmore": "Everything I feel / Revealed." Of course, that's not possible, but Cousins courageously tries to share honestly here; she invites us into the stillness with her, to come in out of the cold and listen to her sad songs. (Outside)