More than a dozen guest stars perform on Rhian Sheehan‘s lush opus A Quiet Divide, which straddles multiple genres, from ambient to post-rock to modern composition. I’ve been a fan of the New Zealand composer ever since he offered a tiny music box with Standing in Silence, a prized artifact that still sits proudly on my living room shelf. The new album is a delight ~ warm, enveloping, and uplifting when such things are most needed. As a bonus to those who purchase the physical edition, one can choose one’s own cover, as illustrated above.
The ambient opener wraps around the listener like a sonic blanket, easing the way into the album. But “The Absence of You” is where the instrumentation first flourishes, piano and strings staking out their claim to spots in the stereo field. Many of the titles indicate a dissolved relationship ~ “Lost Letters,” “Last Time We Spoke” ~ while others refer to dying starlight and broken sky. There’s a great sadness here, but also the ability to overcome such sadness through beauty, especially the beauty of the natural world. Of these tracks, “Lost Letters” sounds the most mournful, a slow lament over what might have been. But each forlorn entry is matched by a buoyant piece, in this case the sparkling “Soma Dreams,” graced with glockenspiel and voice.
This has been a slow year for post-rock, with many top performers silent and no rush to fill the gap. That’s why it’s particularly surprising to hear Sheehan turn in one of the year’s best tracks in “We Danced Under a Broken Sky,” six succinct minutes that encapsulate all that is great about the genre: the build, the eventual euphoria, the resulting catharsis. If music can help transcend a broken heart, here is the evidence. What then is the quiet divide? Is it a gap between specific people or an overall metaphor for our modern state of detachment? Either way, Sheehan continues to write the type of romantic music that brings people together and might be used to score documentaries about healing and hope. He’s passed this timbre on to a number of friends, most notably Levi Patel (who appears here on “Toward the Sun”) and Lauren King, spreading a sonic gospel in a way that might touch the whole world. As the album quiets down in its second half, the timbres imply a second reading of the title. Could the quiet divide be an invitation to meditation and reflection, an path to inner peace? In light of Sheehan’s output, such a reading is plausible. As the album descends into calm, the heart follows suit. (Richard Allen)