“Only fools think love is evergreen”. There’s no messing about with mood on Distance. The sentiment is unforgiving on opening track “Evergreen”; yet with a voice that reassures like solid wood or the peaty, antiseptic smoke of a good single malt, Michaelson somehow manages to comfort with the stark realities he’s singing about here, and elsewhere on this staggeringly good record.
I could bore you with the minutiae of Michaelson’s career as the man behind the sadly-overlooked Absentee, the three previous albums with the Coastguards which culminated in last year’s Blindspot or the fact that he seems to like to make records eight tracks long with a running time of around thirty minutes (now that’s the sort of brevity I can get on board with), but the talking point should be Michaelson’s voice and his way with a sparse arrangement that makes each song on Distance feel like the most sumptuous thing you’ve ever heard.
The opening tracks of Distance sound like reality hitting home after the relative comfort and positivity of a track like “Sheets” from Blindspot; on that song, Michaelson mumbled reassuringly about “the point is not to let the dirt back in”, detailing the making-up of a couple after a fight but “Evergreen” has a bleary and foggy quality – all brushed drums, elegant piano and barely-there strings – that suggests regret at continuing to fight for the relationship. Sadness hangs on every note, and the theme continues into the next track. “Bones”, while more upbeat in rhythm, begins “if you feel that love run cold / after crackling through your bones / and tears fall like ash on your clothes / is there no-one else to tell you / ‘come on home, I want you / come on home I need you here’?” Again, we’re in the aftermath of something and although the cello swells in the background, the rhythm swings and the pedal steel whines in a way that’ll always tug at your heartstrings, you know all is not well.
This all sounds incredibly morbid, doesn’t it? Yeah, sure, but there’s always that thing of finding small crumbs of joy in the darkness: the music of Will Oldham may seem “depressing” but that’s to miss the dark humour and the journey through to the other side he takes us on, and something similar is at play here on Distance. A singer I interviewed recently spoke of a song being an “invite” and Michaelson seems to share that vision; this isn’t music to wallow in and shut yourself away with, as is evidenced by the brilliant country rock swagger of “Burning Hearts” and the keening waltz of “Evening Light” which both brim with love and positivity. The same can be said of the open-hearted love song “Your Beauty Still Rules”, which has that special honesty-without-embarrassment that only comes from experiencing a major life event: falling in or out of love, marriage, children, death…whatever it may be, that honesty is something we should all wish to attain. It’s something you hear on the album’s best track, “Every Step”, as well: if you think singing about “no more will I wait to kiss your sweet face / I count every footstep that takes me away / I promise a thousand til I turn and say / that I miss you…every step of the way” is trite and clichéd and lacking in any emotion, then we’re done here.
Ably assisted by his Coastguard players, subtly fleshing out his songs with pedal steel, brass, strings and piano, Distance might well be Dan Michaelson’s finest collection of songs to date. You know you’ve experienced a little something of what’s being sung about here in that intimate croak of his, and if that makes this record all that more special to you, then there’s not much more for you to ask.