If there’s a problem with solely reviewing music we like, it’s that sometimes we struggle with the levels of enthusiasm we bring to writing about a particular project. At A Closer Listen, we don’t spend time writing about records that we don’t like: from day one, we set out to be positive and leave the (in our opinion) reductive ratings out of the picture. If this scenario does have a drawback, it’s that we sometimes get stuck in a spiral of kindness. How many positive adjectives can we usefully utilise?
At some point, we all experience the same problem as the child doctor in the Seinfeld episode The Hamptons. The gang have left New York to go and visit their friends and the new baby who, let’s say, is not the most attractive infant. Whilst Jerry and Elaine are doting on the child, the doctor pops by for a check. Upon meeting Elaine for the first time, he compliments her as being ‘breathtaking’. This makes quite the first impression, which is ruined when the doctor also describes the baby as ‘breathtaking’. That night, Elaine can’t draw the doctor on what he thinks of the stars in the night sky – how would he describe the dark blanket of infinite space? We never find out. The next morning, the doctor puts himself out of the picture by praising the breakfast as ‘breathtaking’. It’s a fun subplot in an episode that is dominated by George’s problems with shrinkage (‘it shrinks?’ ‘like a frightened turtle’).
The exchanges between Elaine and the doctor underline a recurring problem: if you start throwing out adjectives like breathtaking for breakfast, where do you go? You don’t have the words when something genuinely spectacular is shown, like the galaxy in all its splendour. If we review an album which is solid and pretty good and call it breathtaking, where does that leave us to describe Detritus? Because Sarah Neufeld’s new album is phenomenally good. Outstanding in its field, for sure. Mesmerising. It is entirely possible that the music will prove overwhelming and you will need a sit-down and a cup of tea to recover.
From the opening notes of violin played at the atmospheric Hotel2Tango studio, this is an album that glows with life. It’s music that feels simultaneously epically wide-screen and profoundly intimate. I would guess that playing with Arcade Fire has given Neufeld some insight into balancing the great and the small. It is possible to focus solely on her violin playing to the exclusion of everything else, but you can also lie back and take in the complete arrangement; the ethereal voices, the dampened drums, the general feeling of light and space.
It’s scarcely possible to pick out highlights, but if you enjoy the work of Julianna Barwick, lend an ear to “Stories”. If post-rock epics are more your thing, try out “Tumble Down The Undecided”. Prefer a minimalist slant on your modern composition? Then start with the title track. If you have two ears connected to a heart, then leap in without fear. Sarah Neufeld is part of Bell Orchestre who released the wonderful House Music earlier in 2021, so she will probably appear on two of our albums of the year come December. But that is several months away, and frankly, it is better to focus on the now. It has been a lousy sixteen months and we need music this good to spread light, joy and wonder into our hearts, which Neufeld does with ease. If music does have healing properties, then Detritus should be available on prescription. All over-statement and joking aside, it is breathtaking. (Jeremy Bye)