All Is Well
hope I speak for everyone reading this when I say that it's not unusual for a song to make your heart stop. Often, though, it only happens once you've already become acquainted, a fourth or fifth or tenth listen suddenly opening up the music in ways you wouldn't have imagined before. What's rare is to have that sudden interior leap the first time you hear a song. Sam Amidon's version of “Saro” did just that back in September, courtesy of its homemade video. Those muted, expressive horns, so different from the sparse sweep of Amidon's But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, nailed me immediately. As Amidon mournfully sings (now more deadpan, mysteriously wise naif than folk Kermit), “I wish I was a poet / Could write infinite / I'd write my love a letter / One she'd long understand” over Arvo Pärt-esque strings and his own hesitant guitar pluck, I wasn't quite sure what was happening, but I knew I had been grotesquely undervaluing Amidon.
In my review of his debut, I'd wondered if Amidon “could do half as well without such strong, already established material” to draw on. I didn't mean much by it at the time, but looking back at it: bullshit. I was about a half step away from falling into the old fallacy whereby singing a song you've written is automatically more valuable than singing someone else's; I think I was trying to make a point about the possible novelty value of an album of old Appalachian folk covers (and if I was worried about that, my enduring affection for Amidon's debut with Thomas Bartlett since February suggests I was being overly cautious), but it came out wrong. Amidon's strength is exactly that he refracts his talent and art through these songs, old enough to bear the weight of dozens or hundreds of versions, and “Saro” is ample proof.
Or rather “Pretty Saro,” as heard on an old Watson Family album as well as plenty of other places... the thing about the kind of very old, public domain music that Amidon draws from, the thing that makes it easy to frustrate and confuse us modern internet-based music listeners, is that it is for many of our intents and purposes untraceable. Wikipedia has never heard of “Pretty Saro,” as far as I can tell; there isn't a single definitive set of lyrics floating around the various dubious lyric compendiums that haunt the internet. The sample you can hear on the Amazon page for Watson Family Tradition sounds nothing like Amidon's. He's reharmonized the song (something he did sparingly on Chicken, but on every song here), changed the melody, and either found some old lyrics I can't or else written his own. Given my own academic interest in the identity of songs over time, certainly I find his transformations on All Is Well intriguing; but I'd have to get over the gut-punch emotional and aesthetic reactions I have to the music to really focus on that.
Unlike Chicken's two-handed, home recorded origins, this time Amidon decamped to Iceland to work with Nico Muhly, who arranged the strings, horns, and woodwinds that along with Amidon and his guitar/banjo form the heart of these songs. Muhly has worked with Björk, Antony, Philip Glass, and many others, but on the basis of All Is Well alone I'm willing to start dubbing him a genius. These songs are never fenced in by the ensemble, and Amidon never sounds out of place fronting a mini-orchestra (something that the admittedly great dry drum-machine stamp of his “Louis Collins” would never have led me to believe). Amidon has picked a group of songs about leaving and doubt and death that the never-lugubrious backing marries with perfectly. The senseless violence in “Wild Bill Jones” (sung by a narrator who is heedlessly proud of it, even as Amidon's dead tone undercuts him at every turn), the petrifying fear in “O Death,” the ache in “Sugar Baby” and “Saro” all make the beauty of Amidon and Muhly's music even more piercing.
As sky-scrapingly great as “Saro” is, however, the key section of All Is Well is the end. After “O Death” (familiar to many from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, but here sung with a kind of calm breathlessness that heightens the feeling of doomed pleading) Amidon launches into “Prodigal Son,” one of four tracks adapted from Dock Boggs. The constant refrain of “I believe I'll go back home / Acknowledge I done wrong” is mournful yet clear-eyed—at first. The son, returning home, seeks only a servant's place, can't bring himself to believe in or even hope for any mercy from his father. And yet, of course, the father immediately embraces him. But here, even after the father's quasi-miraculous reaction, Amidon's son continues to mutter the refrain to himself. His guilt doesn't feel assuaged by the father's joy and forgiveness; it's uncertain if he even hears it.
To follow that up with the title track, an 18th century New England folk hymn sung from the prospective of a dying man that culminates with the lines “My sins forgiven / Forgiven I am free,” sung in a tone fraught with wonder, and the subsequent repetition of the title.... admittedly I am a sucker for art that accepts our common mortality, but the combination is devastating and uplifting nonetheless. Somehow Amidon snuck behind my back when I wasn't looking and became one of the few artists who aren't Low who can address faith, guilt, sin, religion in general without becoming trite, arrogant, or didactic. This is an album that turns the Georgian Islands children's singing game “Little Johnny Brown” into something rustling and haunting, feedback chirps bleeding through Amidon's voice as the repeated “fold the other corner, little Johnny Brown” begins to acquire strange and unsettling meaning of its own. To hear Amidon practice similar alchemy on “O Death”/”Prodigal Son”/”All Is Well” isn't exactly surprising, but it is still a massive achievement; Amidon and Muhly both deserve to have the sort of careers where years from now we'll scarcely be able to credit the two of them working together and it not being a big deal. Last time I said that Amidon had made the most interesting folk album of 2007; suddenly he's one of our most powerful chroniclers of the myriad varieties and shades of grace. All Is Well is viscerally stunning, comforting, upsetting, entrancing; as long as he can make art like this, Amidon can skip the formality of 'writing songs' forever.