Released on the continent and in his native Canada last year, and now getting a welcome UK release courtesy of the farsighted folks of Tin Angel, Spectral Dusk is the second album by songwriter Jonas Bonnetta in his Evening Hymns guise. A meditation on the death of his father, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it’s not in any way a mawkish set of self pitying “sad dad gone” songs, but a reflective acoustic space realised through some powerful, airy, literate songs.
The album was recorded in a log cabin in Perth, Ontario, with musicians recruited from friends including The Wooden Sky and Timber Timbre, and recorded by sonic genius James Bunton. The sound is predominantly acoustic, with sparing use of electric guitars and keyboards and the sound of the woods and the lake. As a work of art it’s a memorial and an assertion of the writer’s growing awareness of himself as a man. Drawn from pain, it’s a musical and artistic triumph.
Opening with literally an invocation, a field recording from near Lake Mazinaw segues into ‘Arrows’, a drum beat calling his father’s spirit into being, wanting to see him and let him free: “I sing these hymns to call you in/I shout these songs to let you go”. It evokes an atmosphere of the vast outdoors and the spirituality that pervades the whole album.
The mood changes with ‘Family Tree’, a savage disownment of a family quibbling over a dead man’s memory. As the song says – with bitter and incisive writing – he shows no mercy. Things soften with the song that could make most men cry, ‘You and Jake’ – on one level an acoustic guitar-driven track with simple memories of his brother Jake and his Dad, “Smoking smokes and just dreaming big”, but also depicting his Dad as part of the air: “You hung around the bush like woodsmoke/How does it feel to be hardly there?/Spirits playing spoons with your bones/I could feel you in the air ” and the crucial driving thought behind the whole album, “You taught me how to be a working man/Well I’m gonna work on you”.
The theme of a man being part of nature – part Thoreau, part Frost - drives the powerful, electric guitar-driven ‘Cabin in the Burn’: “You are the Mighty Spruce/You are the mighty pine”, before finally acknowledging the power and comfort of memory: “I’ll let you lie down in my mind and there you can be anything….” This theme and imagery is developed further in ‘Asleep in the Pews’ which tells of feeling lost, and of the weakness of a man out in the world: “I spent some time in the woods. They were dark. They were deep”. ‘Spirit in the Sky’ is another invocation to his father, with a cry of pain for having been left alive and left behind. ‘Song to Sleep To’ recalls his father when he became ill – begging him to be strong in dreams, while ‘Moon River’ reflects on the mess a grieving person can make of their other relationships but also on the hope that love brings. ‘Spectral Dust’, the final track, sums up everything – life, death, childhood, adulthood. It’s a remarkable song of simplicity and depth, just Jonas, his electric guitar, the darkness, and if you listen carefully, ice cracking in a whisky glass from his friends and collaborators listening as he really does bare his soul. “Please come back to me”, he sings, “I need you to be a man”. It ends with another field recording and Jonas and his brother Jake hollering to each other through the wind, in its own way, as evocative as the train whistle at the end of Pet Sounds. This is an album about being alive: about the power of sound and of art and the human spirit – life, love and the world we live in. It’s also a simply beautiful record. Hear it.
You can reader Bonetta’s own track by track account of Spectral Dusk here