At its heart, Hundred Acres -- the third full-length album from Wisconsin singer/songwriter S. Carey -- finds him grounded comfortably in his skin, but still with one foot in the stream. More direct than ever, there is a wellspring of confidence in this new batch of songs that lays bare the intricacies of life while keeping its ideas uncomplicated.
Trained in jazz, Carey's astute musicianship has never been in question nor taken for granted, and the execution of Hundred Acres' new ideas is seamless. He intentionally unburdened himself from a more complicated instrumentation palate for these ten songs, and, in effect, this modification to his approach brings the content of the work much closer to a living reality. By giving equal status to the indifference of nature and the concerns of a material world -- while employing more pop-oriented structures instead of the Steve Reich- or Talk Talk-ian repetitions of his past work -- a new balance is struck that creates something unique. This in turn provides equal status for the feeling that created each song, and the feeling each song creates. Almost impossibly, there is more air between the bars; Carey and his contributors sway like treetops in the wind, remaining flexible enough that they never threaten to break.
Thematically, the album is a poetic treatise on what is truly necessary in life, a surprisingly utilitarian art project that underscores the power of enduring. The simplification of songwriting didn't arrive out of thin air; it came from the similar desire to reach for the utopia of simplicity, for daily life to be unburdened of anxiety and tethered by love. It is a way to say that returning to a more simple life, if even just a little, can heal wounds and mend the cracks. This is leadership by example rather than intervention, and for Carey, it starts at home.
In a way, these are his Kodak moments: dedications to his family laid out as songs and reminders that life, like music, has a profoundly ephemeral quality. One way to keep it is to let it flow over you. The challenge is the balance between holding on and letting go, and Hundred Acres is a master class in the trying. As a serious artist entering his prime, Carey presents these songs perhaps more like a Gerhard Richter Florence exhibition of masterfully over-painted photos than an ad hoc collage on the family fridge. They are at first easy-going with a wide-open front door, embracing simplicity in structure and lyrical straight-forwardness, then suddenly hopelessly beautiful, revealing, and breathtaking.
Perhaps no song better illustrates this ethos than "More I See," an exultant and strummy, snare-on-three gratification piece. This is echoed by Carey, who says, "The best way to understand this song is through the lyrics ‘When I'm naked, deciding…no I ain't surviving,' meaning you can just live to live."
"Yellowstone" highlights Carey's storytelling. As he describes it, "Just drive and see where you end up, get lost with the one you love." The lyric "We should lose our way before we lose our minds" speaks to this immediacy by essentially saying "all we have is now, what are we waiting for?"
On "Fool's Gold," Carey's signature minimalism is intact with an acoustic guitar serving as the backbone, propped up ever so slightly by ambient keys and a lilting slide. The song showcases the newfound difference between writing on a guitar versus a piano, as he has traditionally done in the past. Says Carey, "This song is what started the whole record…everything came out of it and the vibe it created."
Storylines aside, let's be clear about one thing: Sean Carey's voice may not hit with blunt force at first, but when it creeps up on you -- and it will -- a soulful range is revealed, with a reedy, singular quality that extends above the clouds. If you're unconvinced, look no further than album standout track "True North." Here, Carey recites lyrics as vows while he recounts the late hours of his first date with his wife. It is a lucid love song to his family life, highlighted by the chorus, "Only upright will I be." As Carey says himself "How can you write a record and not reference love?" Laid out over spare but lush-sounding instrumentation and an uncommon phrasing within the 4/4 structure, this is Carey's musicianship and intention in a happy marriage, his heart and head securely in concert.
From subject matter, to title, to artwork (again photographed by Cameron Wittig), Carey puts the finishing touches on this sprawling vision of a reality-defining naturalism with the title track, offering these lyrics as an actionable treatise on sublimity:
all we need
is a hundred acres and a row of seed
all we need
is a hundred acres and some room to breathe
There is an almost seditious beauty to it. As if to say, "If you want a better world, you either do something about it or see through it."
For as comfortable and confident as Carey is, a thoughtful questioning of reality remains as his driving source of inspiration -- an attempt to creatively process the highs, lows, and all of the moments in-between with the help of musical processes. The moments between moments don't just stand for something; they are everything. And like all great art, they provide further possibilities, personal interpretations for the listener. Simply stated, over the course of three albums, two EPs, and a few one-off singles, S. Carey has proven to be a reliable source of beauty. It's a safe claim to make that something so reliably beautiful can also be called enduring. In an era when the shelf life of art is typically measured in minutes, this accomplishment puts him in a rare group of artists, seemingly unconcerned (but not indifferent) to passing trends.
Written over the course of a few years, in between touring schedules and the growth of his family, Carey recorded, mixed and produced Hundred Acres at home and in various studios in rural Wisconsin with support from his longtime collaborators Zach Hanson, Ben Lester, and Jeremy Boettcher, as well as new contributions from Rob Moose (yMusic), Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens) and Sophie Payten (Gordi).