Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tony Dekker - Prayer of the Woods (2013)

While I listen to all kinds of music, at any given point in my life there is usually one genre I most gravitate to. Over the past year, I've gravitated to music I call roots music. I made up the name because the music/sound I'm interested in doesn't usually match a single genre; it seems to drift amid the blurred borders of blues, folk, country, bluegrass, and rock. It's largely acoustic music, with a streak of Americana in the lyrics or the musical approach. Listening to roots music is likely one reason I started taking guitar lessons this past year. As I began writing songs, I searched for music that fit into my made-up genre, as it is the kind of music I would like to write.

Tony Dekker's solo album Prayer of the Woods is one of the albums I've stumbled across in seeking out such artists (meaning I'm unfamiliar with the work of his band Great Lake Swimmers). Prayer of the Woods is totally roots music: quiet, melodic, and deeply imagistic songs performed with basic instruments played and arranged with great skill. The lyrics are very poetic, and brimming with emotion without getting maudlin or overdramatizing them in a 'tears in my beer' way.

In both lyrics and music, Dekker conveys emotional states quite effectively even though it's not usually clear what his songs are about specifically. Even on tracks that resolve easily into states of mind or portraits ("On My Way Back", "Final Song"), one feels Dekker drawing a curtain between the listener and himself. It's as if the truth or meaning of his song is always sitting just outside one's field of vision. Many artists who write this way leave me cold, but Dekker's writing, performing, and sound are so consistently evocative that one doesn't mind being mesmerized rather than being directly told a story or drawn a portrait of someone. 

His songs on the latter half of the album are the least concrete. Yet even there (and really throughout the entire album) there are enough clear anchors for the listener - in terms of locale and emotion - to make each song resonate as if you fully get it. For me, many of the songs feel like they take place in late winter or fall and in the woods or rustic landscapes (certainly not in a big town or city), which the title of the album would seem to confirm. Emotionally, a sense of recent loss pervades the lyrics and is sharpened through Dekker's soft guitar playing and gently toned - but clipped - vocals. Even when he's weaving a picture, as on "Under a Magician's Sky", there's a terseness to the delivery that prevents the album from becoming dreamy or abstract. You always know there is something concrete behind that curtain he's pulled down.

Every one of Dekker's songs works with great melody, and his two covers fit into the feel of the album so well that you might not suspect they were written by someone else. Only the difference between Gordon Lightfoot's sense of melody and Dekker's marks the final track ("Carefree Highway") as definitely by another writer. However, the most intriguing bit of composition is the title track, which Dekker apparently wrote around a poem by an anonymous source. It's almost as if in this litany of how wood from forests permeate our lives that Dekker is also drawing together the emotional content in the rest of the songs. Not only do we draw materials from the woods, but some of our deepest memories and experiences can be come from there as well. The prayer "harm me not" could then apply equally to treatment of the forest and to how we hope to interact with others and they with us.

Prayer of the Woods is a beautiful album, but despite this it is also one that comes across as basic as burlap or bark. The consistent, yet nuanced, style all the way through makes for a terrific complete listen. Highly recommended.

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