A gorgeous meditation on the fragility and beauty of life.
S. Carey’s third album, Hundred Acres, is an album that seems to trace the effects of winter on nature and human life. Opener ‘Rose Petals’ mirrors the falling of snow with its acoustic strums landing softly but with force. ‘Hideout’ is a walk in the brisk cold, your breath a perpetual cloud in front of your face, your cheeks ruddy and red and the snow around you glistening pure white. Snow and cold are an almost ever-present theme on the album, a presence that you can all but hear; the penultimate track, ‘Fool’s Gold’, even manages to sound like the first moments of the thaw – you can pretty much hear the snow melting in the background.
Organic has always been an accurate descriptor for Carey’s music. In amidst synths and electronic sketches, and alongside virtuosic playing that belies his jazz education, there was always a clear connection to the world around him. On ‘Neverending Fountain’, from sophomore album Range of Light, for example, the percussion is made up of layered footsteps trudging through snow. Hundred Acres takes the idea of an organic album and pushes it further than any of Carey’s past works, an interesting development given his long-time collaboration with Justin Vernon on Bon Iver’s music. As Bon Iver has gotten more electronic with each release, Carey has gone in the other direction, slowly removing electronic palettes and complicated structures from subsequent albums until Hundred Acres has a mere sheen of synths and static. It’s a simple album, nothing strays away from linearity. It sounds startlingly like some of folk and indie rock's most acclaimed: some tracks sound like they could have been pulled straight from Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, or Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.
Lyrically, it’s a work that is more about expressing ideas abstractly, rather than offering concrete definition. The lyrics are suggestive, providing just enough detail to give you a frame in which to hang your own interpretation. Vocally, it’s a deceptively soft album, where Carey rarely soars above the mix. His lyrics are not just unclear in specific meaning, they’re also often unclear in specific diction – words flow together, almost able to be replaced by emotional hums. Words and melodies rise out of his chest laboriously; this can be seen in ‘True North’, which also has the least obtuse lyrics, telling the story of Carey’s first date with his now-wife. Despite the lyrical variety, it’s clearly a personal album, one concerned with his own father’s impending death, personal tragedies that unfolded in the family, and, of course, love – as Carey himself said in a statement regarding the record, “Can you write a record and not reference Love?”.
Choosing a standout track from Hundred Acres is difficult. The album exists as a whole, with no one track standing head and shoulders above any other. It’s a gorgeous album, with vocals that float along over simple, yet lush, instrumentals that have been largely untouched by production magic. The tracks throughout, have similar structures, similar textures, and similar melodies – but it doesn't matter when listening to them all together. ‘More I See’ stands out mostly because of its huge similarity to Francis and the Lights track ‘Friends’ in its first half. As for the other tracks, ‘Yellowstone’ has a layered outro, where the lyrics flow in and around and over the top of each other: fragments can be picked out and the chaos sounds somehow glorious.
‘Emery’ has the most remnants of past albums, with a less simple structure, and builds into a wave that recedes with the decay of the song’s final notes. ‘Hundred Acres’ has another affecting outro, where Carey sings “No, I can't... I can't do it/ I can't do it, I can't do it/ No, I can't... I can't do it/ I can't do it,” the fragments and hesitation revealing a heart-breaking inner look at his own faults and inabilities. The album’s first single, ‘Fool’s Gold’ is perhaps the most heart-breaking of the album's tracks, concerning itself as it does with Carey’s wife’s miscarriage following the birth of their first child. It’s not an immediately clear subject, but when Carey sings “There are nights I see you/ In big sister's hazel eyes” it’s hard not to be moved greatly.
Closing track, ‘Meadow Song’, is the most expansive track on the album. Directing his words to his father, Carey sings “You can stay, you can stay/ I wandered off but found the way/ And all these cliffs surrounding me/ The holes are patched in thanks in part to you” and the “you” of that final line rises out above the music and the rest of the melody. With it, the possibilities lay before us and S. Carey: possibilities for love, for new beginnings, for fresh starts, but also for tragedy. With the recognition of the “you” that is Carey’s father, he also recognises the possibilities that are tied to all of humanity – life and death in equal amounts.
Ultimately, Hundred Acres is an album, a whole that is greater than its parts. It is a collection of tracks, to be literal, but it feels unintended for that purpose and unserved by dissection. With Hundred Acres, Carey has provided a gorgeous meditation on the fragility and beauty of life. It’s an album that doesn’t demand your attention but wins it nonetheless. Put it on in the background if you wish, but you’ll soon find yourself paused in your activity, listening to Carey, buoyed along.