Following the releases of new albums by David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine and Justin Timberlake, 2013 might go down as the year of the unexpected comeback (your move, Dr. Dre). For lovers of lush, harmony-laden orchestral pop, the most pleasant return may be that of Halifax, Nova Scotia’s the Heavy Blinkers, whose ten-years-in-the-making Health was finally released on July 30.
Fans of the group could be forgiven for having given up thinking they’d ever hear the long-gestating follow-up to 2004’s The Night And I Are Still So Young. After all, despite occasional reports of new songs and sessions as far back as in 2005, a blog dedicated to the recording of the album (which optimistically promised that Health would “be mixed and mastered by Oct 31 2008″) had last been updated in August 2008. In fact, the group was dormant for so long that Jenn Grant, who joined the Heavy Blinkers as an unknown singer following the release of The Night… and who shares vocal duties on Health with Melanie Stone and Stewart Legere, found time in the interim to become an acclaimed solo artist with four full-lengths and two EPs under her belt. That Health was even released almost comes as a surprise. That it is a triumphant return, an ornate masterpiece that exceeds all expectations – and far and away the best Heavy Blinkers album – is nothing short of miraculous.
Conceived as a musical by Jason Michael MacIsaac, the group’s mastermind and last remaining original member, Health is an ambitious hour-long song cycle that touches on weighty themes such as death, loss and unrequited love. Opener “As Long As You Have Your Health”, which gives the album its title, is something of a red herring: the exuberant choir that re-introduces the Heavy Blinkers is silenced mid-song, replaced by gently plucked harp strings and a mandolin that abruptly leave way to a dramatic cascade of strings. Following that shift in mood, MacIsaac takes us on an emotional musical journey filled with stories of star-crossed lovers (“Perfect Tourists”, where a rollicking melody and irresistible piano hook contrast with lines like “My sweet, it’s sad the options we had were/Desertion or surrender”), newborn saviours (the humorous “Silence Your Drum”, which offers a rare moment of levity: “It must’ve been hard to walk with a drum/But we’ve just put the Son of God to bed/Could you not have brought a harp instead?”) and even dead figure skaters (“Someone Died Today at the Ice Capades”, a multipart epic about a young girl who died during an ice show dressed as Bo Peep; it is perhaps the most unexpectedly moving song on the album). So much tragedy could make for uneasy listening if not for MacIsaac’s consistently spectacular songwriting and the striking beauty of the music (especially of note are David Christensen’s deft string and horn arrangements).
Much has been made of Brian Wilson’s influence on the Heavy Blinkers’ sound, and it still crops up throughout Health: on “Crystal Clear”, a bass harmonica, strings, sleigh bells, a harp, a flute and a strummed banjo combine to create an arrangement that is pure Pet Sounds; on the haunting “Anna Karina, I Was Wrong”, echoes of “Oh My Darling, Clementine” recall Wilson’s use of “You Are My Sunshine” on SMiLE. Similarly, lines like “It’s crystal clear it’s winter/Crystal clear the hinterland moans” or “From a pocketful of the apocryphal/You hand to me the lie I need/To keep the river from meeting the sea” unmistakably evoke the wordplay of Wilson writing partner – and early Heavy Blinkers supporter – Van Dyke Parks. Elsewhere, though, the delicate bossa nova beat of “Call It A Day” suggests a Brazilian influence; “It Sounds Better Than It Sounds”, featuring Sondre Lerche’s longing vocal and a sweeping instrumental break, could be a lost track from Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs; and the juxtaposition of intimate, closely mic’ed vocals and cavernous orchestral arrangements often brings to mind Richard Hawley, Scott Walker or even Phil Spector’s work on Dion’s Born to Be with You more than the Beach Boys. If Parks, Walker and Jimmy Webb joined forces to produce a devastating song cycle for Beth Orton or Keren Ann, it would probably sound a lot like this.
Health is not flawless: the relentless bleakness of the words (“These thoughts are so sad, almost too dark, for me to breathe” goes one line from “I Should Be Sleeping”) could overwhelm even the least sensitive soul, and “Mes craintes oubliées” – a lovely lullaby sung in French by Grant – is undone by poorly translated lyrics. Nevertheless, there may not be a better late-night record this side of Frank Sinatra’s Sings Only for the Lonely, and Health will speak to anyone who has had their heart broken, lost a loved one, or spent an evening wallowing in despair over an unreciprocated crush. Most of all, Health is an album for those who, like MacIsaac (or Wilson), believe in the power of music to soothe – and perhaps heal – even the deepest wounds. On “Child of the Radio”, Grant sings over a bed of swirling strings, “I feel both darkness and hope/When I turn on my radio/I feel both darkness and hope/When some voice says to me, ‘You’re not alone.'” It is easy to imagine turning to Health for that voice.