Have you ever breathed in cold air and it has hurt? It’s a surprise how much it hurts, but you carry on anyway, because hey, life happens.
Cardboard Boat, the latest album by David Berkeley, struck me like that. It wasn’t a sharp intake of breath, more like slow breathing that stretched so deep it reached parts long left, nearly forgotten, which lie there cold in the hope they would go away.
Berkeley wrote the album as accompaniment to his book The Free Brontosaurus, which advertises itself as “a novella told through ten stories with ten accompanying songs.” I can’t guarantee that each of the songs I’ve associated with each story is the right one. These are stories of people feeling remote, walking the edge of where ties have been cut. Whether they're real or imagined ties, they meet the same result.
Very simple stories they seem too, building up layers of character and message, sub-text and plot. They’re explained in the book and illustrated on the album, where that ever-present remoteness dulls the joy, waters the sunlight.
It’s like a carnival
After the weather has changed
Even the carousel
Don’t want to turn in this rain.
These words from the title track eloquently cover that sense of having been left out in the cold, and it is a thread running through the album. That track is not simply eloquent, however. Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek, I’m With Her, The Decemberists) adds vocals to Berkeley’s smooth telegram wire of a voice. Their joined singing rounds off the chorus and catches any escaping feelings -- feelings that no one notices if and when they break free, so they basically have nowhere to go.
The song corresponds with a story in the book that differs completely from my personal narrative. It turns up at the edges. You are left with some good and some hope, and those are also slow moving vessels in the background of the album.
“Setting Sail” for example starts with an ominous note -- long, deep, dark -- then a declaration that the narrator is setting sail again. The winds are high and he doesn’t know if he’s coming back. In the midst of this, though, his heart “is calm tonight” and you are aware of how important this is, with every unstable and changing moment. This small line is huge. There is some subtle percussion from Mathias Kunzli in “Setting Sail.” It shakes out of a mood rather than rhythm or beat, and it spreads the song over to those other shores.
Apparently Kunzli arrived with bags of keys, wires, and shells (at least it sounds like there are shells) to add to the mix. He played them, his mouth, and his body to add to the sound. It works. Cardboard Boat stays afloat not just with Berkeley’s latching words and easy voice, but also with the musicianship ensconced in it all.
The atmosphere added by the banjo and trumpet of Jordan Katz embeds the ghosts – listen out for “Broken Crown” to see what I mean. The important layers of guitars belong to Bill Titus. Will Robertson is on both electric bass and beautiful upright bass with a depth that floors you sometimes when you’re listening. He is also responsible for the keyboards. And Watkins' strangely strong, strangely vulnerable voice, buoys the story and the sound in several (I think five) tracks throughout the album.
Cardboard Boat travels beyond uneasiness and separation, though those are the contexts, the potential empathies, and probable sympathies. Listen and you will find connection and much more light. You don’t need to read the book; the songs are strong enough to stand on their own. It’s just that -- as applies to so many situations in life -- they don’t have to do it on their own.
Video credits: ONE ON ONE