Lifts the ‘pandemic’ genre of music to fresh, inspirational heights.
COVID-19 came roaring back into the British mainstream media last week courtesy of the police fine received by Boris Johnson for his (and we’re probably being far too kind here) woefully ambiguous approach towards lockdown restrictions. But fortunately a much more wholesome and uplifting attitude to the pandemic and its challenges was also at hand, in the guise of a new album by seasoned Boston folk singer-songwriter Susan Cattaneo. As the album title suggests, ‘All Is Quiet’ is anything but overstated, and it is all the more effective for that. For one thing, its nine tracks have just a couple of semi-acoustic guitars and the occasional dab of pedal steel as backing to her measured but powerful singing. And rather than attempt some kind of dramatic global vision of the pandemic (which could have ended up being trite), ‘All Is Quiet‘ remains both a very personal, concise, account of Cattaneo’s reactions to living through it, and a finely turned out display of some of the songs she wrote during that time, too.
Only the first, brutally pessimistic, song and the second last, much more upbeat, track on the album directly address the pandemic. But it’s not just by placing these tracks so close at the beginning and end of the album that the pandemic remains a constant presence throughout. Each of the six songs in between are shot through with those overlapping feelings of resilience and self-doubt, despair and determination that stalked almost everyone’s minds when we were all stuck in our homes with only our worries or worse for company. Or as Cattaneo sagely puts on the second last track, ‘Hold Onto Hope’, “the only way out is through.”
So what exactly was on her creative mind in 2020-21? Well, the title song rips right into the heart of the nihilism and apathy that so often prevailed early on in the pandemic, with lines like: “Inhibition / Is my new religion / Just watch me pray / The slow defeat, I rise only to repeat / another day / with nothing to say.”
Subsequently, love songs like ‘Love+Time+Gravity’ or ‘No Hearts Here’ pivot effortlessly around the kind of emotional self-doubt that social confinement produced by stripping away our different perspectives on life. But there’s also room for a telling analysis on ‘Something Borrowed’ of how even decades after the rise of feminism, women continue to be typecast by society, and how Cattaneo, for one, has no intention of passing on that hideous tradition to the next generation: “She is my daughter / We have the same eyes / She’s quick with a word, quick to feel hurt / Her shadows are all mine / And how I love her / As mothers do / And I’ll be damned if I’ll make her carry / More than she has to.”
Where the album falls down a little is when it occasionally gets too clichéd or portentous – although that wasn’t exactly an infrequent failing in a time where everybody was struggling for rational answers. ‘Diamond Days’, for example, builds on an overly well-worn idea that ‘tough times make us what we are’ without giving it any new insight . Similarly superfluous, for all it contains a few pithy one-liners, is ‘Hold Onto Hope’, a song so clearly intended to act as a rallying cry for unity and solidarity that its message just comes across as ingenuous and cheesy.
Overall Cattaneo may have had limited and variable resources in the pandemic. And certainly, when viewed globally – the length, the style and the inspiration – ‘All Is Quiet’ feels a million miles from Cattaneo’s excellent previous album, ‘The Hammer&The Heart’ (2017), a double LP featuring barn-storming (and much rockier) collaborations with, amongst others, much-missed Americana stalwarts The Bottle Rockets. But it’s a testament to her skill and experience as a musician and writer that – apart from the above two examples – she rarely mis-uses a beat when it comes to using that raw material. ‘Broken Things‘, for example, re-values the fragments of pottery she found when she was digging through her garden, and gives them poetic purpose. As she puts it, “We are cut with memories / Shattered by our history / Left to wonder how to make it through / But look upon a stained-glass window / So many pieces bound into one / Colors come together in a holy hue.”
It’s true that the chiselled out compactness of the lyrics on ‘All Is Quiet’, none of which last more than 250 words and some of which are as short as 100-odd, leaves unnervingly little room for error. But from the deftness of the arrangements and the condensed wordplay – check out the way she mines the potential for different meanings of “blackbird” and “black bird” in the song of the same name, for example – to the way music and words so often fold faultlessly into each other, ‘All Is Quiet’ proves to be an pleasurably intense, layered and mightily compact listening experience. Or to put it briefly, despite the surrounding gloom of the pandemic, there’s a heck of a lot to get into here and enjoy.