Recently the significant other of a close friend of mine committed suicide. It’s the kind of unthinkable tragedy that has left my friend, myself and many more grappling with the pain inherent in life. We’re left wondering if there isn’t more we could have done, and remembering all sorts of moments both good and bad. I’m left with questions on all sides. And because of who I am, I usually look to music for answers, for comfort, for stability and for challenge. I’ve been listening to The Eastern Sea’s Plague for about three weeks now, and so after hearing this news, it seemed like an appropriate place to turn. And yet, this isn’t an album for answers.
On this record, The Eastern Sea wrestle with many of the negative feelings that plague us regularly in our everyday lives. Songwriter and singer Matt Hines articulates self-doubt when he asks, “Is it us or is it them? / Is it you or is it me?” on “The Match.” Hines expresses a longing for connection on “There You Are” when he asks, “Do the years go by for you like mine in Texas?…Do the lines not show around your eyes?” His uncertainty – never to be mistaken for apathy – is probably best illustrated in “So Long Either Way” when he notes, “Oh the future could come undone / Or not / Either way.” And on “A Lie” he calls out all of the naive promises of youth, “And when you took by the hand and said / That you would never break my heart again / I think I told you that I’d never leave / I guess that was a lie.” As I’ve lately been looking to wallow a bit, this album has welcomed me with open arms.The Eastern Sea - 'A Lie'
However, Plague is not content to be merely one thing for me. While I listen to it, reveling in angst, it rouses me from my stupor. This mostly occurs through the music, which is constantly shifting. As with the Megafauna EP I reviewed earlier this week, the arrangements on Plague are never content to remain where they are for more than a few bars. A song like the thrilling “Santa Rosa” is driven by its propulsive drum beats, but about two-thirds of the way through the song, the drums disappear entirely. It sounds like the song is building back to their reintroduction, but the final chorus takes a completely different turn when Hines’ voice is backed only by circular, rising quarter notes from a piano and glockenspiel. In moments like this one, and so many more across the record, the Eastern Sea musically embrace their lyrical themes. The uncertainty and instability about which Hines sings is turned into awe-inspiring beauty. It suggests that even though you might have a good thing going on, change is inevitable and can result in something just as sublime as what came before.
Across the album you can hear the influence of Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, Arcade Fire, and Death Cab for Cutie, among so many others. Anyone who deals in lush orchestrations and swelling arrangements shows up in some moments on Plague. The whole collection ends with the transcendent “The Line.” This might be the track most affected by my current context when I listen to the record. It’s a song that addresses mortality in the context of a loving relationship, opening with the line, “Those pearly gates don’t seem so great / I can wait for you.” After all of the tumult of the previous 37 minutes, Hines concludes, “All I want is you.” Out of context it sounds unbearably cheesy. In context, however, it’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and reassuring. It’s the only way such an album could end, reminding us that all of the pain we feel in life is nothing but the price we pay for the love that makes it worth living.
I could write pages about this record. I’ve spent almost 24 hours total listening to it in the last few weeks, and I haven’t even come close to tiring of it. It stands as one of the great musical achievements we have seen or will see this year. The Eastern Sea will be opening up at Blues on the Green later this summer, and playing at ACL Fest in the fall. They’ve been reviewed glowingly by Paste and MTV so far. All of this success is well-deserved and hopefully there will be more to follow. For the time being, though, you can attend their record-release party this Friday at Stubb’s indoors for $8. And you can buy their record anywhere on June 26th. I suggest you do.