by DAVID KERN
Hailed by many critics as one of 2009’s best early releases, Southeast Engine’s From the Forest To the Sea is a profound, creative and challenging conglomeration of roots, folk poetry and Americana rock sounds. Recorded during the summer of ‘08 in an 1800’s era, now abandoned, middle school in the hills of coal country Ohio, the album could be read as, essentially, a concept album, the telling and exploration of one man’s life - his fears, dreams, temptations, desires, triumphs, failures and questions. However, where many a concept album has a relatively distant, disparate feel, From the Forest to the Sea manages to delve into experiences that all people have and thus is the most personal kind of album. It’s not the story of an extraordinary man in any mythical sort of sense, but rather one that goes about it’s business with the idea in mind that we are all extraordinary people who live extraordinary lives and do extraordinary things, even - or perhaps especially - when they seem least worthwhile. The album explores the crests and troughs of living without condescending, while avoiding the often useless platitudes and over used cliches that so riddle even the more creative indie music popular today. In fact, quite the opposite.
Lead vocalist and lyricist, Adam Remnant effectively uses so many abstract and colorful images in his songs that one might assume his writing to be heavily influenced by the work of poets like John Donne, William Blake, T.S. Eliot and the like, not to mention America’s greatest living poet, one Robert Zimmerman. In the album’s opening three tracks - “The Forest I”, “The Forest II” and “The Forest III” - Remnant details, through first person narrative, a vision in which his main character, seemingly newly married, is drawn, by some unseen force, into a wooded area haunted by “four maidens made of light (are they the work of devil or the light of the divine?)”. He crosses a stream, “with the sun around [his] shadow and the moonlight through the trees,” following those nymph-like women into a clearing where a fire is burning and they’re whispering “words spoken like broken vows” as the water suddenly begins to rise and flood the wood and he begins to find it difficult to breathe properly. But then he finds he is high above the wood, ascending as if he is flying, and he sees a hand reaching down from the heavens, “extending to grab [his hand] but its not the time and so [he] loses [his] sense of direction.”
Of course, in classical literature the forest is representative of both fear and transformation. It is in the wood that the heroes of the great tales face their most daunting fears and in so doing they are changed - for better or for worse. The forest is home to the most dangerous of creatures - and thus the most heroic of challenges - and the deepest of magic. It is in the wood that Narcissus sees himself and Hades sees Persephone; that Rosalind takes on the appearance of a man and Bottom the appearance of an ass; it is in the wood that Dante enters Inferno and Lucy enters Narnia. The forest is symbolic of growth and transformation - as the natural world grows and changes - but it is also symbolic of death and darkness - for it is there that the cruelest of creatures and darkest of nights are found. It is interesting then that Remnant should open his album and, indeed, open the marriage of his main character, with a vision that takes us deep into, and far above, a dark, clearly magical, fairly melancholy wood. Such maneuvering certainly elicits paradoxical feelings of foreboding and hope. Realist much?
In the fourth track, however, he and the band take what appears at first to be a sharp turn. Where the opening tracks are experimental musically (complete with organ and honky tonk piano) and lyrically ambiguous, the next track takes a much more direct, familiar approach. In “Law Abiding Citizen”, the narrator tells how he and his wife (to whom he was married in “The Forest I”) met in school, traveled together, were wed “as fast as can be,” and began a traditional life together, 9-5 included. In the form of the more traditional folk ballad, the song could be read as a piece of nostalgia. That is, until the final few lines suddenly appear. Remnant sings, his Tweedy-like crooning bearing all: “yeah I’ve kept up with my work and with my family but somewhere along the way my life got ahead of me… Hey! I’ve had to make my way Hey! I’ve had to fight for this life I live, for this sky so bright, but now my dreams are haunted by her pale face in the night, I could not bring myself to bring the dark into the light.”
“On Two of Every Kind,” for my money the best track on the record, Remnant’s narrator confesses. After a long day at work and filled with a longing for something new, he takes off out on the town in search of “whatever [he] was looking for.” In a scene straight from an Altman or Jarmusch film, he heads into a cafe and sits down, orders a coffee. From across the room a woman comes over to him, takes a seat and says: “they call me Lady Midnight after the Leonard Cohen song.” He’s all ears: “yeah she spoke to me so gracefully and I just went along.” And that’s it. That’s all we get of that moment. Oh! the tension! What happens we do not know. But then come the album’s best lines:
“…but back in church I learned holiness and how to live above the earth and all its worldliness drowning in the flood but God’s children build a secret ark to keep them in God’s light the rainbow shines eternal joy while the rest of nature dies yeah but I’ve read every chapter and still my heart is weak, yeah, and judgment falls on every act no matter how discreet.
…and so she calls after me and invites me back to her place to know to see with no make believe she is looking at my face - I am counting on God’s grace.”
The rest of the album follows similar themes, exploring the complicated nature of relationship and forgiveness, of longing and temptation, of guilt and grace, of regret and brokenness. It’s about wrestling: with the self, with others, with God, with faith. It delves briefly into eco-politics and family life, invokes the Biblical tales of Noah’s Ark and Peter’s walk on water, and from time to time suggests an apocalyptic subtext that borders on the Gothic. Ultimately, From the Forest To the Sea is about how all things fit together, live and breathe and do because of one another and, the album seems to be implying, exist in the same, supernatural order of things. In listening to it I am reminded of the words of Wendell Berry: “nothing exists for its own sake, but for a harmony greater than itself, which includes it.”
Musically, the album avoids easy categorization but has often been compared, and rightly so, to the blues-alt-rock-folk stylings of Wilco - and not just because Remnant’s voice bears a striking resemblance to Jeff Tweedy’s. Southeast Engine are driven by guitar to be sure, but they also make subtle use of organ and strings, harmonica and, especially, a variety of piano sounds. They are the kind of young folk band that has begun to pop up of late: heavily influenced by the poetic insights of Bob Dylan and even the homegrown melancholy of bluegrass, but definitively rock n’ roll.
It is unlikely that you will find a more thoroughly engrossing, powerfully challenging and joyously complex album this year. But beware. It is a challenge. Lyrically it’s dense and filled with heavy metaphor and difficult, complex - but abundantly rich - imagery. It’s literary and poetic and earthy all at once. But, if you’re up for an adventure, brave enough for a challenge and honest enough to look carefully in the mirror than join Southeast Engine on their journey From the Forest To the Sea.
David Kern lives in North Carolina and is editor-in-chief of Into the Hill.