Somerset Maugham’s retelling of the old Arabic folk tale “Death Speaks” came to mind as I was listening to Grey Fields latest release, the three-song EP Sometimes the Dark Outweighs the Wonder. In the folktale a man in Bagdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. While there the servant comes upon Death who makes a “threatening gesture.” Frightened, the servant flees and tells his master about this encounter and then says, “now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. Later on the servant’s master encounters Death in the very same marketplace. He asks Death, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” To which Death replied, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
The three songs which comprise Sometimes the Dark Outweighs the Wonder come from having stared death in the face and coming out of that encounter triumphant. These songs are both about this new life that has been leased and about a reflection on the old life.
The opening track “If You Surround Me with Love I Won’t Feel Alone” is a haunting track of sparse acoustic guitar and eerie hums, chant like, which creates this funereal image. Then come the lyrics, a sort of stripping down of what a person is made of in this day and age; “Take away my money then take away my phone” singer Alex Dzamtovski sorrowfully croons in a wispy falsetto and later comes “take away my body then take away my soul.” He is essentially deconstructing himself in terms of his life, of what it’s made up of essentially. Musically the song is brilliant in its sparse acoustic guitar and hushed vocals which reminded me of Leonard Cohen and the bright yet spare pops of single xylophone notes.
Even more haunting and shadowy is the song “An Idea for an Acoustic Ballad” which echoes the title of the song “Exit Music (For A Film)” from Radiohead’s OK Computer, a muse I have ascertained Grey Fields holds in very high regard. Again the Spanish guitar makes its appearance amongst ghostly bells and whimsical “lah di dahs.” The song is touching and heartfelt, and perhaps even more accessible than Radiohead’s ballads largely due to their being just one piece of a bigger puzzle.
The equally haunting and Radioheadesque closing song, “Crawling Through the Dark” is the widest reaching of these songs in terms of a sense that there may be light somewhere near the end. It’s a sweeping ballad which gives the album a wider scope, and an ascension of ideas.
There is so much beauty in sadness. However sadness is not the easiest emotion to portray on a record. There are many pitfalls both lyrically and musically especially when the record is made purely as a reflection of that sadness, when there is not another voice or a third party to patiently point out that emotion must be carved out. It must be molded from its raw form, and worked to perfection to give the intended effect, or else it just becomes another log on the fire. It is this great focus which make these songs so powerful, and which makes certain that Sometimes the Dark Outweighs the Wonder will continue to burn on long after the fire goes out.
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