Album Review: the National Lights - "The Dead Will Walk, Dear"

Hearts and Bones

The songs on The Dead Will Walk, Dear, the debut album from The National Lights, are some of the most beautifully haunted you are likely to hear all year. Literally. They all touch on death, ghosts, non-accidental drowning, and living with dark secrets. Inspired by American gothic writing, particularly Flannery O’Connor, lead-singer and songwriter Jacob Berns takes the template of a traditional-folk murder ballad and spreads it out over 10 songs. Centered around an unnamed river and the lost love at the bottom of it, the songs have a easy, gentle flow to them that belie the violence alluded to in the lyrics.

The album is nothing if not concise. The 10 songs clock in and out in under 30 minutes, and often drift one into the next like a series of pretty little nightmares. It’s as if the songs came to Berns in his dreams, woke him up, and left him scrambling in the dark to get them down before they disappeared. He takes the idea of Neil Young’s “Down By The River” to a conceptual extreme, ditching the gun and electric guitar, and instead use bare hands and acoustics to do the deed.

The album works in part due to the subtlety of the stories. If you’re not paying attention the album plays out as a series of lost love songs, and you miss the band’s true intent. Songs such as the sublimely beautiful “Riverbed” and “The Water Is Wide” rarely do more than dance around the edges of the murderous event, usually only hinting at the act itself or the reasons behind it. The closest we may get is when he sings “somewhere there’s a heart in your body, you hide it well, but sooner or later, babe, I’ll get to it” on album centerpiece “Buried Treasure”. What sounds like a confident declaration to a coy new love on first listen slowly shows itself as a literal threat. “There was a time when your body kept on beating; all you’re good for now is bones for buried treasures in the shoreline”, Berns sings later in the same song.

The Dead Will Walk, Dear also works because of the consistency of the songs. What the album lacks in stylistic diversity is more than made up for with the relentlessly beautiful melodies. The harmony parts of Sonya Maria Cotton are reminiscent of Natalie Merchant, and balance out Berns’ lead in a sweet and understated way. She is most prominent on “Swimming In The Swamp”, ironically the song with the most direct violent imagery. Her voice rides side by side with Berns throughout the song, and swaps into the lead for the chorus, seemingly leaving her as the new love and next victim for the narrator.

The National Lights have proven that taking an age-old song idea, in this case the murder ballad, and injecting it with new life can yield stunning results. The Dead Will Walk, Dear is a noteworthy debut, filled top to bottom with lovely little folk songs that can snuggle up between Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days and fit right in.

Read the recent Pop Headwound exclusive interview with Jacob Berns here.

Check out these 2 songs from the upcoming The Dead Will Walk, Dear:

Buy The Dead Will Walk, Dear here. Visit the band at their myspace to hear more!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yay ! this is beau-ti-ful music...!
that's just sheer beauty what they're making - gives one a warm feeling in these dark days
oi, 2ldmoe/b