Unassuming but confidently made, this soothing blend of folk and Americana is a tonic for the soul.
Like so many of us, Minneapolis based quartet Collapsing Stars had big plans for 2020; in fact, they were touring and on their way to make their third appearance at the prestigious SXSW Festival when the world shut down and left them stranded in California for almost two months. But fear not, the band’s sophomore release is not – much to the relief of many a fatigued music fan – yet another lockdown album, the songs actually being inspired by the time in which it was written: the pre-Covid-19 years of 2017-2019. As much as they have chosen to go against the grain by putting out their first album post-2020 and having it not feature songs about living in isolation (or baking banana bread), the structure of ‘Chapter’ is a little different too, although not entirely unexpected when you consider the title.
There are vocal-less tracks scattered throughout the album breaking it up into “chapters” as if it were a novel. This is a move that asks the listener to take the album as a whole rather than skipping to its parts individually; this may seem like an odd choice in the age of streaming culture, but it cleverly makes the album more resonant as a whole – a fully realised vision rather than just a collection of parts.
‘Fame’ is a comment on the monstrosities of American celebrity, although lead vocalist Justin Wayne Nelson sounds more disappointed than upset: “Have you learned anything / And have you earned your celebrity / Memorable circus clown / And are you famous now,” he asks rhetorically. The title track takes on the very weighty subject of America and what has in recent years often felt like its lack of democracy. “I lay awake in bed / Afraid of closing my eyes / No telling what will be / The victim of your demise,” Nelson says of sleepless nights over the state of his country.
“Will they love you while you’re here / Will they decorate your grave,” Nelson asks mournfully on ‘Pay Your Last Respects’, before he poses with a sweet sadness on its chorus: “Pay your last respects to those who won’t be coming back / Make your last attempt to hold onto the other side / Hang their pictures on the wall / Remember what they look like / Pay your last respects and keep their memory alive.” On ‘Never Been in Love’, Nelson questions the idea of love fed to us from the movies (“Never been in love before / I gave up searching long ago / It’s probably just a chemical / That’s reinforced by Hollywood”), feeling jaded with how the initial excitement and passion seem to fade in the doldrums of a long term relationship.
There are a lot of favourable comparisons to be drawn with Iron & Wine (aka. Sam Beam) throughout: There are of course the lush strings and the delicate, barely there vocals, but more than that, Collapsing Stars – like Beam – recognise that breathing room within a song can sometimes be as evocative as a full orchestra. With ‘Chapter’, they have proved that not only do they know exactly the beginning-to-end way they want their story to be told, but that they also have the chops to execute it beautifully. Here’s hoping there’s a lot more still left to be written.