Black Swans – Occasion for Song (4.5/5)
Death may be the most difficult topic to honestly, straightforwardly address in popular music. The topic is so imposing that it is nearly impossible to fully explore the one constant of human existence within a three or four minute song. Luckily for Black Swans, they tackle the subject of death not through a single song, but over the course of a nearly hour long album. The single loss that hovers over the album happens to be that of Noel Sayre, the band’s violinist who died suddenly in a swimming pool. The front cover pictures the stark, imposing image of a diving board. And absence is at the heart of the album, since much of the music and lyrics are less about death itself than with coming to grips with loss.
“Portsmouth, Ohio” is the only song that directly grapples with Sayre’s death, and it serves as a sort of emotional and thematic centerpiece. Black Swans tackle the subject with a hushed understatement, preferring to let the real life narrative speak for itself without a forced emotional push. The song’s refrain, “Nobody’s supposed to die three days before the Fourth of July,” is delivered matter of fact like. Within that phrase is imbedded the unthinkable nature of death—that, try as we might, we can never truly wrap our heads around the idea of not existing. It also emphasizes the devastating abruptness of such an accident, a reminder that no one is guaranteed the supposedly requisite 75 years.
The rest of the album approaches death obliquely. Even when the subject matter seems to deal with our past, because of the shadow Sayre’s death casts across the album, each song seems to fashioning a cartographic image of mortality. When singer, Jerry Decicca, tells us, “I give one hundred dollar bills to homeless men, so they can get fucked up right,” I can’t help but think that he’s giving us a perverse reinterpretation of carpe diem. In “Work Song” Decicca ruminates on the tension between material necessities and spiritual fulfillment, singing “Watch the seahawk dive, it needs food just like you and I to survive.” For some of his best lyrics, he relies on concrete imagery rather than abstraction in order to cut to the pith of his meaning.
Each song sounds both lush and ramshackle, like an intricate bird’s nest thatched together by twigs and mud. Decicca’s singing is similarly rugged, falling somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’s speak-sing. But the most interesting aspect of their music is what’s missing. Instead of trying to replicate Sayre’s violin, Black Swans instead chose to do without the instrument, possibly deciding that some things are just irreplaceable.