All Souls’ Day
Self Released 2014
By Matt Meade
Once, while my nephew was noodling on his acoustic guitar, we had this pseudo religious, Who’s on First? moment while talking about the charismatic singer-songwriter Tallest Man on Earth. My nephew was playing “Troubles Will Be Gone,” on his guitar as if the finger picking was something everyone could do.
“Tallest Man on Earth?” I asked, playing it cool. “I dig that band.”
“Yeah. Me too,” he sulked. (He doesn’t mean to. He’s a teenager).
“Tallest Man is a him right?”
“I’m not sure if it’s a hymn or not.”
“Yeah. It’s a him. It’s not a they. It’s a him.”
“Like… from The Bible?”
“No. Like from Sweden.”
I’m not sure when we finally figured out what the other one was talking about, but that doesn’t really matter because there is something accurate about associating the word hymn with the quiet contemplative music that Kristian Mattson plays. Aren’t all his songs hymns, in a way? I sort of feel that way about the music of Youngest Son as well. Like Tallest Man on Earth (and Bright Eyes, Mountain Goats, Perfume Genius, and a bevy of other talented singer-songwriters), Youngest Son is also the solo project of one guy with the occasional assist from other musicians. In this case the him is Steve Slagg, a very talented singer-songwriter and piano player out of Chicago. Also like Tallest Man on Earth/ Kristian Mattson, Youngest Son / Steve Slagg is trying to reveal some of the same truths that hymns attempt to reveal. Unlike Tallest Man on Earth, Steve Slagg actually plays actual hymns sometimes.
All Souls’ Day (self-released on July 29th) is the spiritual sibling of Youngest Son’s 2012 release All Saint’s Day. There are more whispered admissions, more tender canticles about dawn and hope and whatever happens after things end. Again we get the handsome and insightful website packed with what would have been called an album sleeve one million years ago. Slagg is releasing this record as a companion piece to his record from 2012, with tonally similar songs and the same fussy presentation, because the occasionally optimistic young songwriter is still exploring the same themes; he is still building the same church to raw sentiment and showtune sized emotion.
There is a cohesive brand development happening at youngestsonmusic.com. I guess musicians have to do that now and Slagg and Co. do it well. The site is handsome, crisp and just interactive enough to be interesting without being overwhelming. It was designed by some multitalented chap with the impossible name of Blade Barringer who also wrote the Sufjan Stevens like “Anticipate your Arrival.” Among the website’s lush fresco paintings of bleeding saints, a Sgt. Peppersesque funeral scene and a dower Jesus, there can be found Slagg’s poignant mini-essays. These compositions contain admissions of guilt, expressions of longing, inside jokes, and the occasional insight into songcraft. And, of course, the website makes available Slagg’s contemplative and sometimes devastating lyrics in which he almost compulsively overshares about those who have dumped him, died on him, and perhaps most revealingly, those who have saved him.
Slagg makes a habit of inviting talented musicians to record with him and the additional voices adds a communal feeling to Slagg’s songs. The record takes on the feel of a habitat for humanity project, all brand-new flannels and pats on backs. The contributors seem to bring with them a lot of good feelings and warm wishes. So amicable is the collaboration that two of the songs on the record are sung by people other than Slagg, a curious decision for songs so personal. Allison Van Liere sings Slagg’s “Hole in the Sky” and Mooner plays a song called “Long Year.”
The former is overstuffed with vocal harmonies that never seem to take the song anywhere. I get the feeling that the idea for this cover was more ambitious than the song is capable. It is almost saved by the dulcimer’s yearning clatter, but not quite. Slagg performs his song more compellingly on All Saint’s Day where Van Liere also appears and where her harmonies make more sense against his breathy rendition. The song’s inclusion here is meant to be a bridge between the two records but instead acts as a reminder for just how personal these songs are and how, like obedient pets trained by Slagg, they prefer their master’s commands.
Mooner’s treatment of “Long Year” is better. It works as a heartfelt paean to death. It is no dirge, however. It is light with bright woodwinds and a violin that major chords the gloomy lyrics into some even sadder abandoned parking lot somewhere, sadder even than if the progression was one of Glenn Hassard’s. The voices are bright. The playing is assured. The message is genuine, hopeful even, which isn’t the kind of thing you usually say about a record so concerned with death and alienation.
And the production, too, is adept, if a little stiff at times. Each instrument is meticulously cordoned off from each other, so to be featured, but also to be shuffled off to the side when it’s time for Slagg to make it seem like it’s all an extension of him and his piano. The competence of the musicians transcends the antiseptic and insincere sound of the production, resulting in something warm and earnest. Slagg’s delivery feels intimate and knowing, the bass feels like a beckon, and the wire brush drums are little scratchy kisses on your face.
But what of Slagg’s songs? He’s the central figure here (besides the website’s sexy and somber Jesus). This is an odds and sods record, after all, so the quality of the offerings tend to be a little uneven. “Blank Face” feels a little unfinished, like the intro to some ballad that a cross-over pop star would sing before they get to the Attention Grabbing Pre-Chorus, but it works for Slagg mainly due to the Spiraling minarets of piano keys in between the chorus and verse and the lyrical entreaties to “unroll another dawn.” “Lake Superior,” which Slagg wrote as a teen, confirms that Slagg has not constructed the Youngest Son persona as a result of some calculation, but has always been this contemplative and sensitive.
In “Quiet Revival,” Slagg finds a fruitful metaphor when he describes a funeral scene that borders on the apocalyptic. Churches burn down, bodies are buried, “Pallbearers shuffled their feet across the ashy ground / And while the baby cried / Other people testified / For the lost / Who all felt the alter calling, ‘Come on down.” Despite this dark imagery, the mood of the song is jubilant. By describing how he deals with death, Slagg tells you something about the way you deal with death. Death invites the kind of celebration, rejoicing and prayer that your traditional revival brings about, but it all must be done in perfect silence. It is a reminder that the creator is at work, that death is a door, that the dead are no longer suffering, and that we are all still alive. Since none of this is supposed to be expressed as joy, Slagg finds this other kind of simmering outlet.
This EP doesn’t really cohere as a single piece, not like his previous releases. It’s not that the songs are not of a piece, because they are, it’s just that they are of varying degrees of quality and of varying degrees of success. It is pretty much all nice, but there is little that is more than nice. The instruments and arrangements are immaculate, and the parts are so clean they actually squeak, but there is nothing on this release that moans like “Faith,” or vibrates with kinetic energy of “Craters of the Moon,” from this album’s precursor All Saints’ Day, and the affecting 2010 EP Pigshit and Glowing, respectively. I sometimes wonder what would happen if something a little unexpected, messy, or un-pretty jumped up in the middle of one of these songs. I’d like to think it would underscore everything that is beautiful about Slagg’s music. The only problem is that Slagg is so careful, so fastidious, that we may never find out.
Despite (or because of?) Slagg’s near Kubrickian level of painstaking construction, there are moments of grace. “We Reset on Thee” is the final song on the record and it acts as the swirling centerpiece of the release. It is the aforementioned actual hymn (as opposed to the rest of the merely hymn-like songs) and it is overwhelmingly powerful. Slagg is again accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Van Liere whose contributions here are delicate and faultless, shimmering with hope and faith. Both musicians, adding their voices and various instruments including a banjo, dulcimer, accordion and (of course), piano, seem to be careful with their performances, restraining themselves for fear of the Arc of the Covenant level of power they may unleash from flawlessly incanting the hymn. And here the production is perfect. It is unobtrusive and coxes warmth from each instrument, from each track, from each note. The song is a perfect triumph and a perfect and moving capstone to the record.
Slagg is using the song to once again make reference to his father’s death, to once again transform loss into something other than pain and regret. At its core, the 100 some year old song is about facing foes and being protected from attacks, it is about firmly believing that there is a reward for fighting through pain and adversity, and it is also about warriors standing next to Jesus in battle and hacking their way to Heaven.
Don’t dismiss hymns. They can be seriously fucking twisted.
At the end there are only my attempts to make sense of it all. This is particularly potent to me, because it involves me. And that is a trick of really, really good songwriters and performers. They convince you that what they are writing about is you. Slagg, when he is at his best, is doing that. Download this record from youngestsonmusic.com when it is released on Tuesday, 7/29. Also…
Go to the Record Release Show on Tuesday July 29th @9:00pm, with Mooner and Frances Luke Accord at The Hungry Brain, located at 2319 W Belmont Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60618.