Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
There’s a strange peace that can come with losing what feels like everything. The Rose Gardener, the fourth album by Bellows, aka Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Oliver Kalb, lopes along with dignity even as it confronts disenchantment and decay. Bellows’ last release, Fist & Palm, was a nuanced account of a slowly festering friendship. The Rose Gardener, on the other hand, contends with the collapse of a whole community—the December 2016 dissolution of The Epoch, a collective of longtime friends making music together as Bellows, Told Slant, Florist, Gabby’s World, Small Wonder, Sharpless and more—as well as larger frustrations with life as a musician. While bitterness and loss loom larger than ever on Bellows’ newest record, it reaches past the surface of suffering and into an unassailable silence at its core.
The Rose Gardener is Bellows’ most eclectic and most cohesive album yet. After an off-kilter analog debut, 2011’s As If to Say I Hate Daylight, Kalb expanded his musical palette with synth and electronic percussion on 2013’s painstakingly chaotic Blue Breath. Three years later, Fist & Palm imparted its bittersweet truths with the aid of club beats and Auto-Tune, taking equal inspiration from mainstream hip-hop and the tender extravagance of Sufjan Stevens.
The Rose Gardener likewise flits from bucolic to mechanical, often within the space of a single song. Its stately orchestral flourishes, fingerpicking folk, crunchy rock and extraterrestrial vocal manipulations flow in and out of one another, creating a sonic world that recalls everything from fairy tales to videogame boss battles. Meanwhile, Kalb’s lyrics take us to barren, frosty fields and up into skies of incandescent stars.
With its spectrum of sounds, landscapes and perspectives, The Rose Gardener showcases Kalb’s gift for containing multitudes with grace. He explains that the album arose out of a period of discontent with “the world of music and the dumb infighting that dominates it,” which he says can lead artists to “destroy beautiful things for an ego-boost.” If that statement sounds self-righteous, one of The Rose Gardener’s most remarkable qualities is its lack of ego, its refusal to remain trapped in a revolving door of resentments.
As on Fist & Palm, Kalb critically examines his anger and his own accountability. “We feel the same pain just as awful,” he realized on that record, “as convinced you hurt me / That I was nothing more than a bully.” On its follow-up, there’s far more than disappointment and pointed fingers: Moving through outrage, apathy and paranoia with eyes wide open, he strives to cast off the narcissism that can easily plague any artist.
At times, The Rose Gardener seethes with imagined enemies and unresolved conflicts. Charged confrontations and apologies swirl on the ethereal-turned-eerie “Accidents Happen” and the aggressive “Denouement,” the latter a rock-inflected track that leaves no party unscathed as it pivots quickly from acoustic strums to electric groans. But it’s “Housekeeping,” the sweeping, whimsically brass-accented album opener, that sets the stage by looking inward. Unable to connect with anyone he meets, Kalb recognizes that the crux of the issue is an internal fracture: “Before you leave the house today,” he tells himself, “Would you close your eyes and think, ‘How’d I get here, through a trillion human lives, to this body in which I’m alive?’” It’s a reminder that the capacity to connect begins on the inside, not the outside.
As much as the record revolves around external strife, above all it is about searching for stillness within, especially when it comes to making art. “In Silence” is a paradoxically bouncy earworm of an ode to the power of quiet resolve, and to truths so fundamental they can’t be contained in words. One of these truths is that art is nothing less than sacred, and The Rose Gardener puts forward a vision of art-making that’s something like unconditional love: a commitment to nurture no matter the outcome, with full awareness of the pain and risk that’s required. “Rosebush,” the album’s most fanciful tune, is the first to harness its central metaphor of a dauntless gardener attending to his prickly flowers, plunging a hand into the thorns in the service of the beauty on the other side. The hushed yet anthemic title track then takes up the image of tending to a single rose still standing in the harshest of winters. “There is a silence here, I’ve chosen it for myself,” sings Kalb, in a trembling whisper that gives way to a swell of purity and warmth. The song sounds triumphant, as though the long-awaited thaw has arrived. But it’s the choosing—the calm self-determination that remains even in the guarantee of failure—that’s the real victory.
This conviction opens the door for some of Bellows’ most successful experiments thus far. “Stupidest Thing,” the album’s strangest track, is nothing less than astonishing in its use of vocal effects. Kalb, feeling ostracized and less than human, processes its opening lines into obscurity, making his voice sound like a synthesizer. “I want to let go of all this aching / And I let go of all this hope,” he later warbles in wobbly, manipulated tones, interspersed with a clear-voiced choir—“Come on, arise in me”—that makes for one of the record’s most awe-inspiring moments. Its distorted final vocalizations are flanked by ethereal sighs, and in another subtle denial of satisfying catharsis, neither builds to a head. Then there’s “The Tower,” which interpolates the Gabby’s World song that brought Kalb back from the brink of giving up on music. With lush verses, a cinematic explosion of a chorus and an unexpectedly vulnerable coda, it’s surpassed in scope only by the seven-minute-plus “Count ’Em Down,” an ambitious microcosm of The Rose Gardener as a whole.
On Fist & Palm’s “Dark Heart,” Kalb yearned for “something more than life.” The Rose Gardener, rather, swells with the desire to “live real life, even if it’s unkind.” Tracks like “Denouement” and “Stupidest Thing” stage the dangers of unalloyed judgment, while the Seven Swans-esque “What Can I Tell You About the World” declares the impossibility of drawing any conclusions about our universe. But in the end, its message is neither bitter nor complacent. The Rose Gardener is a reminder to find what’s important beneath our culture’s constant noise, to honor our anger and wield it with integrity, to cast off self-deception and better support one another. “Count ‘Em Down” might find Kalb watching every connection he holds fade away, but he calls the album more collaborative than any other Bellows release, having worked one-on-one with each of the contributing musicians and producers, many of whom were fellow Epoch members. Its final moments are of laughter between friends. Finding stillness doesn’t mean stepping away from making sense of the chaos that surrounds us—it can bring us together, stronger.