"We dipped our toes into the water to see if we would sink or swim." This metaphor of boyhood wonderment provides a striking opening to Vandaveer's The Wild Mercury, a collection of songs from bandmate to brother, father to child, and musician to muse -- stories of the road and of longing for home. The folk-pop group's fifth album, released today, is its most personal and sonically adventurous to date.
The album title — in part a reference to Dylan’s description of Blonde on Blonde — is an apt allusion to the shapeshifting ideas within, silvery bright and reaching from the traditions of Americana into modern pop soundscapes. Where earlier records reflect a more singular vantage point, The Wild Mercury finds Vandaveer digging deeper, with songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger and vocalist Rose Guerin calling on longtime collaborators from various corners of the country. When the group decamped to Lexington, Kentucky, home of Duane Lundy's Shangri-La Studios, it was with no fixed destination but with a shared desire for sonic wayfinding. What emerged from the give and take, the elbowing for creative space, is musical alchemy — separate elements transmuted into a gleaming, melodic whole.
The pairing of Heidinger's saturated, electrifying vocals with Guerin's bittersweet alto -- the core of Vandaveer's signature sound -- is augmented on this record with the crafted contributions of Justin Craig (guitars, keys), J. Tom Hnatow (pedal steel, guitars), and Robby Cosenza (percussion). The result is a palette both intimate and expansive, familiar and fresh.
Lead track "But Enough On That For Now" traces the arc of life amidst a lush wash of guitars, keys, and synths. The imagery is drawn from close to home -- for nearly a decade, Heidinger and his family lived across from a cemetery, where he found himself explaining to his little boy the dualities of light and dark. What starts as a personal rumination expands into a fresh imagining of a "Band On The Run" theme -- life as "a symbiotic thing, absolutely cruel and beautiful."
The melding of joyful melodies with clear-eyed themes continues in "A Little Time Off Ahead," where glistening harmonies and chiming keys contrast with the tale of a footsore traveler. NPR premiered the song last month in a charming, heartstring-tugging animated video that demonstrates Vandaveer's ability to transform sorrow into moments of lighthearted sonic play.
Title track "The Wild Mercury" is a gem within the well-balanced album -- spacey guitars undergird the imagery of "ancient astronauts." Heidinger is a formidable writer and his wordplay is at its alliterative best here as he poses cosmic questions against a Main Street backdrop.
Slow-burn numbers "A Little Worse For the Wear" and "Holding Patterns" offer contemplative, autumnal moments. The latter is made beautifully bittersweet by the addition of pedal steel alongside studied, gently insistent percussion. And in the genre of melancholia, "To Be Young, To Belong" proves seductive and haunting in its steely-eyed introspection. Arpeggiated guitars and clockwork drum patterns divide up the chapters of a musician's tale -- dreaming and despairing, tracking songs and recording the passage of time.
For longtime Vandaveer fans, "Love Is Melancholy" harkens back to the folkier, stripped-down acoustic feel of songs like "However Many Takes It Takes" from debut album Grace & Speed. The message is as universal as the song is irresistible. And for those who doubt that love is all we need and all we've got, there's a jubilant kick to the uptempo "The Final Word," with its lithesome turns of phrase and cheeky French Revolution references (perhaps an oblique nod to Vandaveer's album of traditional murder ballads, Oh Willie Please).
Penultimate track "Absolutely Over the Moon" demonstrates that this craft is as much about subtraction as embellishment. The hushed and spare vocals-and-guitar arrangement is so intimate that it feels like an intrusion on a private moment between artist and lover. It is as intense and beautiful a song as I've ever encountered, made all the more moving by the unflinching gaze cast on mistakes as well as triumphs.
The evocative, gossamer strains of pedal steel return for closing song, "A Pretty Thin Line," in which the narrator, simultaneously weary and restless, ponders what's beyond the bend. This is a song for wanderers for whom the road is home and movement the only constant -- those who chase the hours between nightfall and daybreak.
Through the entirety of The Wild Mercury, Heidinger’s undeniable gift for storytelling shines through as he reflects on possibilities forfeited, on narratives yet to be formed from the raw materials of the past. While portions of the album begin as autobiography, the trajectory takes us to the cosmos, exploring universal themes in catchy, singalong lines. It all serves as a reminder that the difficult questions are not ones that we must answer alone — if, indeed, we must find answers at all. Sometimes it’s simply about venturing out, finding our footing in the dark:
Spinning tales like tires on a getaway car ... I ride the brakes, you pump the gas ... God only knows, but we all can ask ... So we ask and we live and we love – we ask and we live and we love.
In a way, the "ancient astronauts" of the title track bring Vandaveer full circle. In "Grace and Speed," from the 2007 album of the same name, Heidinger tells us, "I'll pick a planet, and you can choose a star -- we'll plot our points together, we can travel very far."
And so we tell stories to sketch constellations out of stars, to connect the dots. In charting a course between cities and continents, clubs and living rooms, Vandaveer shares life distilled through song, tracing the contours of memories made along winding paths. For solitary travelers we may be — but in music, there is the promise of a meeting place.