To be human is to know the tragedy of loss. The young grow old, the healthy become sick, the living pass away. Everything that we find to be sweet is subject to corruption. And what is more sweet than the first spell of romantic love? The very sweetness of it makes it all the more tragic when things begin to go wrong. At best, it is going to get dragged down into the realm of the ordinary and the commonplace at worst you’re in for bitterness, heartache and loneliness.
Some of our spiritual and wisdom traditions suggest that tragedy and suffering is not to be avoided – rather, it is through that difficult route that we gain a deeper experience and understanding of what it means to be alive. New love can be experienced even more deeply in retrospect when it is seen highlighted against the darkness of the tragedy of its demise. Perhaps we don’t reach the height of love until after it is lost and we experience it as an aching loss oozing with the syrup of nostalgia.
Many of the songs in “Edge Markings,” a new album by the folk duo Planes on Paper, are thick with this feeling of lost love. It is because of loss that the songs strike deeply. The lovely music with which they are crafted – the clarity of crystalline guitar strings accompanied by buttery vocal harmonies – beguile the listener into inviting the music into his or her being. Once enthralled, the listener is then visited by reminders of all of the wounds that are borne and all the hurts that have been inflicted. And in this suffering through music there is something enriching and even pleasurable as a balm.
Planes on Paper consists of Jen Borst and Navid Eliot as the center of the group with Eliot on guitar and both perming vocals. On the album, they are joined by Faustine Hudson on percussion, with Mikey Gervais and Jacob Navarro playing other instruments. The group will perform in support of the new album at Tacoma’s Alma Mater Aug. 17, 8 p.m. as part of their West Coast tour.
“Edge Markings” is the group’s the debut full length record. It was recorded at Panoramic House in Stinson Beach, Calif. by engineer Scott McDowell. The album of ten, sumptuous songs was released in June. The title “Edge Markings” could refer to the line on the edge of the road that you are not supposed to stray beyond while driving. If you go over the line, trouble is involved. Here, the songs function as those edge markers, showing modern life as veering dangerously close to the boundary between the safe and the dangerous. Do we want to cross the line? Maybe.
On just the musical level, Eliot’s ringing guitar strings and Borst’s velvety voice are a harmonic delight. When the pair are joined in male-female duets, there is magic. Their voices layer over one another like a moist, German chocolate cake. These musical voices are augmented by judicious use of percussion, cello, viola, electric guitar, slide guitar and other instruments. The music is not twangy, hillbilly, moon shine music, however. It is a smooth-running musical tapestry that seems to shimmer in a mournful breeze of heartbreak and loss. The lyrics conjure hauntingly lovely images of crumbling temples, fallen idols, desolate battlefields and wastelands. But there are also lonely figures trying to decipher the mystery of solitude and cope with their suffering as they respond to the call of the untamed world of uncivilized emotions. As you listen, you travel through brooding emotional landscapes, your heart weeping with honey.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Wolves,” which is accompanied by the rich, woody timbre of the cello. This is one of the songs in which the lovers (she in a blue dress and he in jeans) seem to have reached a state of contentment, but this is only illusory. The last line shows that the wolves that are heard in the night are calling one of the lovers away. The song ends with some of the lushest vocal harmonies on the album.
“All That’s Flesh is Grass” (a phrase taken from the Book of Isaiah), is a chilling indictment of the short-term, predatory greed that runs rampant through our economic system and is driving the planet to ruin.
“Hermit Song,” presents the listener with a figure like Fredrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, a solitary figure dwelling in the mountains and becoming the creator of a new world there. “I’m not lost, just hard to find,” says the hermit.
“The Ruins,” the final track, is a portrayal of a couple who were childhood friends before they fell in love. Then it all went haywire and they are grappling with their grief. In the song, temples are the metaphor for their young love – the primal splendor that they once had. The temples, however, were razed to the ground and a city – chaos and ugliness – was built where the ancient temple once stood. They destroyed the sacred and erected the profane.
Finding this music is akin to stumbling across a fountain of pure water in the midst of a drought-stricken land.
Don’t miss Planes on Paper at Alma Mater 1322 Fawcett Ave., Tacoma. Aug. 17 at 8 p.m. Also performing will be Josiah Johnson.