I don’t know about you, but I need beauty and comfort right now. The outside world (or the nightly news or your Twitter feed or whatever, pick your poison) feels like an ever-quickening conveyor belt designed to deliver bad things directly to my eyeballs. It’s overwhelming.
At times like these, I just need to close my eyes and let my ears find beauty and comfort—sounds to soothe the savagery of our stupid times. A couple years ago, it was Joan Shelley’s Over & Even that provided a sonic escape hatch. Last year, it was Florist’s If Blue Could Be Happiness.
This year’s model is Hundred Acres, the new album from S. Carey, known to his family as Sean and to most of the music-loving masses as the other honeyed voice in Bon Iver. This is his third solo album, and it’s well-written, breathtakingly pretty and as edgy as a cue ball.
The album spills over with gently strummed folk-pop songs, some colored with dusky string arrangements (“Hideout”) or peppered with glitchy electronics (“Emery”), while others sound like they were recorded in a misty clearing of the woods (“Rose Petals”). “Yellowstone,” with its aching falsettos and confessional tone, could fit in nicely on Sufjan Stevens’s Wyoming album, whenever he gets around to it.
Repeated listens reveals a commonality among Hundred Acres’ highlights: percussion. Thanks to pitter-patter drums and a slightly sturdier pace, the mid-album stretch from “True North” to “More I See” leaves a deeper impression than the ethereal wisps that surround it. “Meadow Song” — an earth-toned hymn-meets-deep breathing exercise — is a fitting closer.
Beauty is only skin deep, of course, and throughout Hundred Acres, Carey seems to be saying something meaningful, but in ways that never quite cut to the heart of his message. Instead, he sings often of hiding out, getting lost and holing up; in “Emery,” he acknowledges coming off as “cold, closed off.” Occasionally, Carey zeroes in on a more tangible feeling – “all we need,” he sings in the title track, “is a hundred acres and some room to breathe” – but for the most part, he seems content to let his words fade into the mix, like a new coat of paint on a wall already painted in that color. No doubt they mean much more to him, but from the listener’s perspective, he could’ve recorded these songs using only an army of gorgeous oohs and aahs and the effect would be more or less the same.
Then again, maybe that’s digging too deep. The bio on his website says Carey simplified his songwriting for Hundred Acres in an effort “to reach for the utopia of simplicity, for daily life to be unburdened of anxiety and tethered by love.” The goal? To “heal wounds and mend the cracks.” On that front, Hundred Acres is an unqualified success.