Paul Thomas Saunders is, I suppose, a singer-songwriter who bucks the recent trend of “nu-folk”-influenced solo artists by embarking on his own singular cosmic vision on new EP Descartes Highlands, a record equal parts acoustic introspection and skyscraping psychedelia. Following on from two previous EP releases and loosely connected to Communion Records – who have possibly the most hit-and-turgid-miss roster you’re ever likely to come across – Saunders falls into the category of the former with four tracks that promise a bright future.
With dark lyrics yet still displaying redemptive qualities, Descartes Highlands – the landing site of Apollo 16, since you asked – contains more world-weary feelings than a 20 year old should really have, yet it’s delivered in such a genuine fashion that you don’t doubt for a second that Saunders has lived through these tales in some form or another. His voice has been compared to both Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke, but those seem cheap comparisons, and a touch wide of the mark, as Saunders’ voice doesn’t quite have the range of the former or the anguish of the latter. A closer comparison would be Jonsi, especially on the Sigur Ros stylings of the final track ‘Santa Muerte’s Lightning & Flare’ but even then that might be more for the shimmering quality of the music than the vocals. Let’s just keep it simple and say he’s got a fine old voice for someone so young.
Compared to the expansive nature of the rest of the EP, opening track ‘The Trail Remains Unseen’ seems almost restrained, being for the most part just simple guitar and keys with some light background ambience. What’s immediately obvious, though, is Saunders’ way with words: “Take the urn, spread its ash on the garden/Every leaf will carry her love in summer/Turn the dial, let the long wave flutter, fighting static and song beneath the ether”. So runs the middle section of the song, a tale of escaping and recalling memories and past lives. It’s a gloomy start, but things quickly pick up with ‘A Lunar Veteran’s Guide to Re-entry’, a song that has the satisfying crunch of ‘Cedar Room’-era Doves whilst still carrying an ethereal sheen of electronics in the background.
The final two songs, though, are the ones that really stand out. Both are moving pieces, recalling a happy memory but filtered through current, fractured emotions. ‘Let the Carousel Display You & I’ is a twinkling waltz that tells the tale of a relationship that’s not what it used to be, Saunders singing “Joanna, you can light up the road at night/But you leave me in darkest places sometimes/Won’t you stay awake tonight?”. The track ends on a spiralling outro that shows off Saunders’ and his band’s musical chops while he wails “we’d dance… when we were high”.
Final track ‘Santa Muerte’ explains how Saunders met the Joanna of the previous track,through slightly treated vocals and that aforementioned shimmer: “I fell into Santa Muerte’s eyes, Cadillac lips that shine but don’t smile/She said ‘Listen love, I don’t ever cry, I can sleep at night/No regrets keep my eyes wide, you just looked lonely tonight’”. As a trumpet plaintively leads towards another expansive outro, there’s beauty everywhere amongst these battered emotions.
Descartes Highlands is another four fine tracks from Paul Thomas Saunders, and it can’t be long before we hear a quality full-length release. He might sing “Lord, I’ve never felt so old” on the final track, but the vibrancy in his words and music point to a life yet to be fully explored.