Thursday 25 April 2019

LISTEN: Bear's Den - 'So that you might hear me'

"I guess I was just trying to say that I have this fear that if you don't say that you're having a good time, no one will ever know. And I wanna tell you guys that this has been one of the best nights of our lives so thank you all so much for coming." 

Davie from Bear's Den there, being entirely unassuming and humble at the first of their two sold out shows at London's O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday, a show which they described from the stage as a "homecoming" (they used to live nearby) at one of their favourite venues. With tracks from their brand new record So that you might hear me (out tomorrow!!) in tow among favourites from Islands (2014) and Red Earth & Pouring Rain (2016) the band had a triumphant return to the London stage... and they even played my favourite track, Magdalene. As a huge fan of the band, the fact that I've had a stream of the new album sitting in my inbox for six weeks is slightly mind-blowing, and easily a highlight of the last few years of rambling on the blog. I'm going to attempt a review but put simply, and echoing the sentiments of my write-up of the recent Nottingham gig: I adore this band and after many (many) listens the record is finding a very special place in my heart.

(c) Sequoia Ziff

Taking a break after four years of non-stop touring, the band set up the Josiah Booth Studios in North London last year to work on new music. While their debut album established them firmly in the folk realm of touring buddies Mumford & Sons the second album saw them employ the use of electric guitars and synths to explore a new sound. The new record, in a way free of musical and time constraints, finds the band reeling in the confidence of two brilliant records. Sitting somewhere in between (and often simultaneously) acoustic and electronic, the record combines elements of both genres, exploring new ground and allowing the piano to take centre stage. "I love how the boundaries between genres have gone in the age of streaming" says Davie, while Kev adds "no one listens to music in boxes anymore, so why make it like that? We just tried to follow our collaborative intuition and go where each song suggested."

The result of this process is a record which sees lead single Fuel On The Fire with its central, pulsing electronics (akin to a submarine sonar - in the album's podcast series, Kev describes his fascination with the sound, describing it as "the loneliest sound I can possibly imagine") sitting directly alongside one of the album's quieter tracks, Breaker / Keeper. With the lyric "truth is a part of me died, when you said I don't really want to be alive. Time stood still, and it hasn't really moved since" this is a beautifully heartbreaking number combining piano, acoustic guitar and horns. The sonar sounds return in the following track, Not Every River, a short track at the record's centre, proving the benefits of listening to the album in full and an example of the musical ties connecting the tracks.

To start the process of creating the record, Davie headed to a cottage in the English countryside with a guitar to work on lyrics while Kev worked on musical ideas on piano and drum machines. They are a band deeply loved for their lyrics, which are often relatable and heartbreaking in equal measure, giving strength to their fans. Davie has delved deeper for this record, exploring personal topics around the album's central themes of intimacy and connection. He describes that "in the past, I've always tried to understand what I'm writing about. This time, lyrics came from a more subconscious place. Like they were things I needed to say and I worked back from there. I was inspired by Neruda, who wrote as though he was trying to figure out his own feelings as much as explain them to anyone else. The aim was to be more honest and instinctive." 

The record's opening track (and my favourite) Hiding Bottles sets the tone for these personal themes instantly. Though it is one of their rockiest tracks to date, setting gritty guitars and electronics against some almost angry singing on Davie's part, the tracks opens the record vulnerably with the repeated lyric "well I'm keeping it together but you don't know the half of it. It's starting to show, no I'm not on top of this." The band describe the intention of the album as "trying to communicate with someone honestly [...] an attempt to reveal the honest and difficult challenge of communicating with anyone that you really care about." This track is one of the best realisations of this, written about Davie's relationship with a close family member with an alcohol addiction with the lyrics, he explains, recalling "real conversations, trying to reach out and help someone. It's also about recognising what you can and can't change, however hard you try."

Another incredibly personal track, most recent single Crow is sure to be a favourite from the record for many. Davie describes writing the track "in memory of my Mum's boyfriend who lived with us growing up. He was an awesome guy and somewhere between a father figure and a best friend to me but unfortunately passed away when I was 15." The track will be particularly pertinent to those who have lost somebody close to them, and I've already witnessed it bringing fans to tears at gigs.

It's a rare treat for music to really touch you in that way - the band talk of the "weight [of] our relationship with our audience that we take seriously and won't ever take for granted", explaining further that "once a song is written and recorded and available, we cannot claim it to be ours, alone, anymore. This song lyrically encompasses so much of what we stand for and talking openly about difficult things and sharing those thoughts with our fans means we can support each other and feel less alone in life's harder moments."

Themes of loss and connection are prevalent through the record, with Davie declaring on Fossils "if I could take it back love, I'd take it back love" and "I miss the way you trusted me, with anything with everything, can we just go back?" Later on the record, Conversations With Ghosts opens with "you needn't be a chamber to house all the echoes and voices of those that have left you" and features one of the stand-out lyrics of the record - "I'll go swimming in the caves, in the sparkle in your eyes, they're just the tears you don't let yourself cry, trying, so hard to say goodbye." Musically however, the lyrics of this track are juxtaposed with an optimistic, breezy piano tune at the centre of the track, and a reassuring plea to the listener - "don't let the darkness in."

Next comes another of my favourite tracks from the record, Evangeline. The track's repeated line "if you wanna go alone, then go alone" brings it into direct contrast with single Laurel Wreath and its refrain "you don't have to be lonely, alone" highlighting the difficulties in communicating with those that you're close to that the band sought to explore on the record. Evangeline echoes earlier tracks on the album, sampling an actual submarine sonar, and a stunning brass section provides one of the closest links, musically, to their debut album. This is taken further in the final track Blankets Of Sorrow, which Davie has described as "part two" of Bad Blood, the final track of their debut album, as the tracks share the same time signature and are stylistically very alike. The album is drawn to a close beautifully with the lyric "Not letting in or letting go, just saying what I've always known. That I only speak, so that you might hear me."

The record was demoed at the band's studio and recored at several studios in Seattle over the course of seven weeks with producer Phil Ek (The Shins, Fleet FoxesFather John Misty). Both being big fans of The Shins, Davie describes it being a dream to work with Phil - "a deeply rewarding and massively educational experience." The full touring band (Christof van der VenJools OwenMarcus Hamblett and Harry Mundy) appear on the album, and joined Kev and Davie in Seattle to record brass, drums, electric guitar and more. Talking about the album process, Davie explains that "the album has grown and evolved from all of the processes we went through. Every step of the way, it has been instinctive, collaborative and pushed us both lyrically and musically. From writing the songs to Kev and I working on the songs together in the church, working through them as a band together with Phil in Seattle and even ultimately mixing with Craig Silvey (Arcade FireThe National) in London. Each separate process shaped and informed the album enormously." 

Bear's Den release their gorgeous new record So that you might hear me tomorrow, April 26th - order your copy from their website here. If you're in London, they play a launch gig at All Saints Church in Kingston for Banquet Records tomorrow evening - I can't wait! Tickets still available here.

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