Four years ago, Berkeley included a song titled 'Broken Crown' on his album 'The Fire In My Head'. It was written to accompany 'The Free Brontosaurus', a then forthcoming collection of ten interwoven short stories. Well, that was finally published last December and, now, here's a further set of accompanying songs, each from the perspective of each story's main character. Not that you necessarily need to know the one to appreciate the other. I've not read the book, so I can't comment on how effectively the one complements the other, though, given the quality of the lyrics and the fact that Berkeley's a Harvard graduate with a degree in literature and philosophy, I'll take it on trust that the novella is well worth a trip to your local Waterstones or kindle. The stories are, apparently, about characters disconnected from home and community who ultimately find connections and redemptions. As you would expect, the themes run through the songs, delivered in a warm, comforting hum of a voice, opening with 'Setting Sail' (one of several built on nautical imagery) that alludes to 'Moby Dick' in the narrator's account of their restlessness and inability to put down roots ("there is a river running through my bones"). The imagery continues on 'To The Sea', a gentle, banjo-mottled acoustic number about a longed for reconciliation between an estranged father and daughter featuring Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins (who features on several numbers) harmonising on the poignant chorus "let me be like the leaves on the trees, they come back in the spring, gold to green, or let me be like the stream full of rain, it comes back eventually to the sea".
Featuring toy piano and with Bill Titus on nylon string guitar and Jordan Katz contributing banjo and trumpet, 'Colored Birds' takes the pace up a notch on a song reflecting on childhood and the sadness of change and loss that comes with the years. Adopting a waltzing melody, the lyrically bitter 'Last Round' sees the end of a relationship in apocalyptic terms before, another song about making your way back, we set sail again in the breathy title track's observation on the fragility of love, its tender longing underscored by fiddle and accordion.
With nimble fretwork and Kort McCumber providing viola and cello, 'Wishing Well' draws on mythology in another end of relationship tale ("Twenty years as one. Then one morning she wakes up, 'George,' she says, 'we're done'") and the desperate need to build bridges "to turn back time."
There's another character falling apart in the organ-based 'Hole In My Heart' with accomplished percussionist Mathias Kunzli setting a funeral march tempo, Berkeley howling their pain to the moon as banjo, fiddle and mandolin echo the emotions. After this, a little welcome light would seem to arrive in the darkness with the swelling, strings and brass embellished, 'Brighter Day' as he sings "I can you see it coming now, it's love", only to ultimately reveal itself as a song about the fear of taking the chance. However, it does, as Tim Hardin put it, look to find a reason to believe ("it's why we pray") and the album closes on two more optimistic notes, firstly the hushed tones and bowed double bass of the acoustic 'Dinosaur And Sages ("you know I can go, anytime I want to, but so you know I'll stay") and, finally, building on the original with electric piano, strings and brass, a new version of 'Broken Crown', a movingly beautiful song about love, solace, protection and encouragement in times of despair and loss. Float on.
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