December 12, 2020
It took me a few tracks to put my finger on it, but composer and singer Molly Pease’s new album Inner Astronomy (4Tay Records) has the distinct tone of changing seasons, specifically that bittersweet Americana flavor of autumn. It is the tone of noticing — a moment, a color, taking in shifting shadows and counting dust motes in a ray of sun. The warm, understanding hurt of acknowledging change.
Through the cantata float images of birds flying, trees living and dying, waves, dry leaves covering the ground. It is a collection of poems by her late father, Randall Pease, drawn from a dark time of recovery from addiction. The poems speak to kindling faith, fear of failure, and departure of loved ones. From Pease’s note about the album, the music seems to be a product of processing her father’s words alongside her own successes and freedom — things he wanted for her, but now accomplished, left him lonely.
Pease’s voice is lustrous, easy as it lays on thick or flutters away in a yodel. Her extensive choral experience shines through inher blending and weaving of independent lines, particularly beautiful in “My Son My One.” However, with such focus on the blend and color shifts within her own voice and in combination with others, when my attention is turned suddenly to text — and away from the vocal world within the words — I am sometimes pulled out of the experience.
Regardless, Pease and her ensemble of singers — Kathryn Shuman, Sharon Chohi Kim, and Lauren Davis — create a space that you don’t want to leave. Together with a chamber string ensemble, Pease creates the kind of landscapes I would regularly sit on my porch for, and yet her solo singing creates some of my favorite parts of the album. The quality, sensitivity, and directness of the vocal work in this album is such a pleasure.
“Higher Power” is graceful, like a processional. Occasionally in the album, points of high drama fall a little flat, but here there is a balance between the understated, gospel-like introduction, and the raw heights of the climax that makes this the most fluid and cathartic track. I listened to it curled on my bed, open to crying but not needing to, and it was perfect.
Songs such as “Tree’s Me” and “My Son My One” are well-crafted packages, unified in content and comforting in their consistency. Some tracks, such as “From I to We” feel more like patchwork, perhaps due to a difference in approach to the poems. When setting poetry, you can write with a baseline synthesis of the sense of the whole poem, where differences in sections of the poem are set more on a backdrop of the overall tone. Alternatively, you can focus more on the range of tone and content in the poem and foreground the contrast between sections — the interpretation of the poem in part is an honoring of the great variety within it. I would say that “Higher Power” was written in the former tack, and “From I to We” in the latter.
With such a personal and heavy source of inspiration, I’d imagine navigating when and where to have restraint, and where to let feelings overflow would be a constant conversation while working on this project. For instance, listening to “Ripen Rebirth,” I really wanted the poem to be sung, and I am still not sure why Pease chose to speak it. With the richest string writing of the whole album, I wished that the words could be riding the crests of those harmonies. Perhaps Pease wanted to indicate the sobriety and the patience of the poem. Slowly pronouncing its words sounds like she is guiding herself through a meditation, not wanting to be swept away in panic or pain, and maybe, to be able to face change and live rooted beyond.