Death has always been and always will be a rich and necessary well for songwriters. Think back to the likes of Neil Young on Tonight’s The Night, Warren Zevon’s The Wind or, recently, Mount Eerie’s sublime A Crow Looked At Me. The finality of shuffling off the mortal coil can really bring out the best work from an artist. They’ve got a single shot to say goodbye correctly and if they’re slightly off then a well-intentioned farewell can become as unbearable as Puff Daddy’s ‘I’ll Be Missing You’. Writing about the passing of a life offers such a vast treasure trove of inspiration that you’d be remiss to fumble the proceedings.
A Grave With No Name, the moniker of singer-songwriter Alexander Shields, has been crafting his own muted brand of consistently good folky alternative rock numbers for the better part of the decade now, culminating in 2016 with the release of the excellent Wooden Mask. Now, two years later he’s returned with Passover; a meditation on family, mortality and the soul. While the individual tracks on display here lacking, the overall impression made is a moderately positive one. In its tight runtime, this album conjures an incredibly delicate aura. It manages to tread a fine line between effectively profound and regrettably plodding and, while pretty successful, doesn’t go much further than that.
This is a proper album in the sense that is has a clear thematic undercurrent shared between its music and lyrics and it uses this idea as a framework to explore various elements of the human condition. It’s an oddly straightforward thing to commend, but it’s an important aspect that must be acknowledged because it’s integral to what Shields is hoping to achieve. By giving everything a rigidly defined atmosphere, it means that you as a listener can instantly drop into the intended mood and remain there until the final echoes fade. Passover has that unity of vision in spades. From the first gentle strums of ‘Supper’, you’re lulled into a dreamy soundscape of hushed tones and restrained instrumentation. From that moment, the record refuses to let you go. As you’re being swept up in the crest of that wave, Shields begins modifying his formula and tries to play with expectation.
Some cuts are rougher and grander (‘When I Pass Through Here’, ‘By The Water’s Edge’), others are improbably fragile (‘Supper’) and a few are downright ominous (‘Pottery & Porcelain’). Each of these cuts is joined to the other by a gentle twang of country influences, such as the slide guitar. It all makes for an experience that feels inherently whole and rich, but you can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong. Unfortunately delving deeper reveals a glaring problem: the songs are lacklustre.
The overall experience is pleasant, but individual moments are, frankly, uninteresting. The second half of the LP feels recycled. ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Hunter’ feel like regurgitations, and ‘Wren’ and ‘Canary’ fulfil the same function even though only one track separates them. It makes things feel underwhelming overall because, in spite of the fact that AGWNN has pulled you into their world, it becomes evident that what they enticed you with was better than what was delivered. Once disappointment sets in, things start to feel less deliberate and sadly more derivative. There is still value and wonder to be extracted but it’s hard to accept that this is, ultimately, a background album; something to pop on in the middle of the day and let pass you by without making deep impression. While for some that will be enough, you can’t help shake that displeasure when you realise there really isn’t that much there. Will Murphy