Lowland Hum's Thin is Majestic in its Simplicity
Daniel and Lauren Goans retreat from the constant motion of life on the road and resurface with a collection of songs that are bracing in their honesty, transparent in their affection, seductive in their vulnerability. The result is Thin, eleven compositions that invite the listener to spend time in a world made rich by their observations.
The Goans began their marriage and their collaboration as Lowland Hum in practically the same moment. Since that humble launch in 2012 they have been on the road more than not. Two full length albums and one EP later they were in need of a break. In the spring of 2016 they got some much-needed down time, and returned to their Virginia home.
“I knew we needed to take time off. I told Daniel that the things he was saying weren’t making sense anymore,” Lauren says. Hibernation included binging on some Netflix series. “I think we definitely crushed a few of those,” Daniel adds. On the phone from their place in Charlottesville, Virginia, they are eager to talk about the new album. What is readily apparent is that they put as much thought into their answers as they do their lyrics.
Daniel began writing songs at age twelve. Lauren is a visual artist, working in video and with evocative props that enhance their live show. I asked if there was an artist or a record that served as an inspiration for getting into music. Daniel said, “The Beatles. It was the White Album. I never knew I could travel that far in my bedroom.” For Lauren, the question left her at a loss for words. “I think it was quite a while before I realized I had anything to say. Daniel was really great at encouraging me in this area.”
Reflecting on last year, and life on the road, Daniel came to some conclusions. “Last year there were some things that looked like they might come together to grow this thing. At one point, it all collapsed. It left me with a question I had to ask myself. If this was as big as it got…if it meant that for the rest of my life I would be performing for fifty people in a house concert, would I be okay with that? Would I still want to do this? And the answer was, yes.”
Thin opens with the gentle strains of an acoustic guitar, the delicate sound of Lauren Goans voice gliding above the melody. Daniel joins in and the listener is ushered into a rich interior world, a place where healing and connection are possible. In this place, full of sensory details, Lowland Hum explores our ability to recover from the ravages of the hurried life. This song cycle asks us to consider how we live, how we get lost, and how we find our way home. There are no major revelations here, this is not an exercise in magical thinking. Instead what is offered is the idea of a life lived with intent.
“Palm Lines” is the opening track and finds the couple regaining their footing. “Walking through cold, tall grass” the couple seek solace in something as simple as a walk outdoors. Road weariness begins to ebb away, albeit slowly. “Frailty is a friend that makes you sleep until morning,” Lauren sings. In this moment of tenderness, we see the couple pulling together, rather than apart, leaning into their relationship for help and a guiding hand. As Daniel sings, “If I lose my sight will the shadow draw me in?” he is answered by Lauren’s reassuring mantra, “Darling, darling, darling.” And we know that he is not alone, not adrift, but tethered by her love. This first song sets the tone for the album, creating an environment where solitude can be a shared experience.
That theme runs like a silver lining throughout the eleven songs on Thin. On “In Flight” they are walking again:
When the world is ugly
And your mind turns black,
A walk might be all that you need.
Be my friend today.
Don’t have much to say
But I’ll try to be myself
As they go, the two observe a flock of birds. The intuitive movements of the flock inspire them to want to relate to one another in a more graceful, natural way. This glimpse into their private life finds them watching the birds in flight, even as they themselves are grounded, in all the positive connotations of the word. Birds are a recurring image on Thin. In fact, the natural world is as present in these tracks as the Goans themselves.
Set details are rendered in the most poetic language. “Cattails nod like monks. Humble tonsures blur. Periphery diamonds kiss mercury.” Other images abound, leaves, and fields, the surface of the bay, and the unfolding spring season. The Goans’ interior journey is rooted firmly in the real world. Lesser artists would veer off the path, and get trapped in their own eddy and stagnate. While the themes of love, reconnection, and relationship are the backbone of the album, nothing feels repeated or overused. That is, in great part, due to the caliber of the writing.
“Family Tree” conveys the struggle of a parent choosing to give up their child for adoption. The second guessing of the decision, the heartache of watching from the window, is rendered in heartbreaking fashion. The portrayal is handled maturely, avoiding the sort of treacly movie-of-the-week sentiment that would be patronizing. It is that sort of intelligent and gentle work in excavation that we have come to expect from Lowland Hum.
There are all sorts of good magic on this record. Each spin takes the listener deeper into mystery and discovery. Notes and sounds you missed on previous trips through Thin surprise and enchant the ears. It is like watching a great film for the second, or third, time. You find new things to love. In the process, you experience the love Daniel and Lauren have for each other, and for their work. The album operates on such a deep level that it seems to reach into your subconscious, tunneling into your soul.
A good example of this subliminal alchemy is found on “Thin Places.” The song begins as a solo acoustic guitar piece. As it builds, the guitar is joined by sparse piano. The two instruments tease and flirt intimately with each other in the way that people do when they know each other very well. It is a sweet dance, as if the very arrangement of the song sought to mirror their union. It is marriage as performance art.
When asked about this, Daniel replies, “I don’t know that I was consciously aware of that.” But the song, and the entire record feels so carefully considered. Where they place a note, or leave an open space, allows the songs to breathe. The couple’s instincts are spot-on. The production as a whole is an embodiment of love, not the ecstatic rave-up sort, but the affirming, comforting, slow burn for the long-haul type. The kind you want to be snowed-in with for a week.
Thin shoulders its message comfortably, articulate in its understated aura. It travels its own path even as it hearkens back to an older time. There are echoes of things permanent, eternal, and wise. In its wisdom, Thin recalls the musings of romantic poets. The record trudges the wooded glens and the leafy paths that run somewhere between Astral Weeks and Tea for the Tillerman. Which is not to say that Thin sounds like either of those albums. It doesn’t, and that is a good thing. What it shares with those older records are images and themes that appear as connecting points. While eschewing the epiphanies of Morrison, they connect in many ways. Nature imagery is ground zero. Where Morrison has always had his “golden autumn days,” and his “clear, cool, crystal streams,” Lowland Hum has their own Edenic portfolio. Their “clear autumn blue revives the sunburned eyes.” As they state so eloquently, “we await the crocus and the smell of thawing soil.”
The references to walking through the natural world bring to mind Stevens’ Tillerman. There is a sense here that the Goans are at play in the fields of the Lord, on their own road to find out. Passing references to a spiritual life connect Thin to both Morrison’s and Stevens’ albums. The Tillerman song “Into White” seems stylistically a cousin to Lowland Hum’s Thin. The aspect of healing through music is everywhere, and was a muse for Morrison in the eighties. And yet, for all these connections, Lowland Hum stands apart, with their own voice, their own sound.
As Morrison once sang, “We’re gonna roam across a field, when the healing has begun.” It is all about healing. It is about leaving your phone in the dresser drawer and talking to your loved one. It is about the ability to be together in silence, beyond speech, where merely the presence of the other is all that is required. It is about a quiet bond that anchors your place in the earth in the midst of tribulation. In this frantic, fast food, Facebook world, Lowland Hum draws us into a sanctuary where we can really feel, and dare to be human, with all the naked vulnerability that implies. Thin is majestic in its simplicity, elegant in its honesty. Take that walk. One foot in front of the other, my darling.