VanWyck “The Epic Tale of the Stranded Man”

Excelsior Recordings, 2022

Concept album sees VanWyck further perfect her storytelling

The latest release from Amsterdam based singer Christine Oele under her VanWyck alias takes the form of a concept album which stitches the dozen songs together to make a mesmerising mosaic of stories.  The album’s premise is that a man is washed up on an island prompting doubts and fears – where has he come from, and why and from whom has he been fleeing?  Is he a danger to the island’s community – but, and here’s the twist, are the strange people he encounters trustworthy and why is the island so isolated anyway?  Thus there’s a mysterious component to the songs from the start, which prompts thoughts of ‘The Prisoner‘, only here Number 6 is wrestling with emotional ties rather than what it means to be an individual in a modern state.  Those less tied to popular culture might detect echoes of a journey of encounters as chronicled in ‘The Inferno‘ or the island hopping perils of ‘The Odyssey‘.  Take your pick – but we’re into mythological territory here and walking with archetypes.

Opening with the somnolent’The Stranded Man‘ we’re introduced to the album’s questioning nature – sung from the point of view of the cave dwelling rescuer of the shipwrecked stranger who is alive with their own questions “is it really true what they say that you’re from another place far away across the ocean? / Are you on the run, who are you running from ? / Baby know that you can trust me.”  At first there is an offer of protection and then the suggestion that “I can heal you, if you’ll let me” which hints at a need to lower emotional barriers, to make a connection, to take a chance.  ‘I was Innocent‘ further muddies the waters – as every convict’s plea is uttered, with guilt being offloaded “blame my Mother, blame my Father, blame my cold-hearted lover – but know that I, was innocent.”  The prisoners here though are those entrapped in their emotional cages as much as genuine thieves, liars and murderers.  Every misdemeanour is painted as accidental or just ill-fortune “all I ever wanted was to save her / But I guess I lost myself / In the prison of our good intentions.”   These swirling emotional defences are tied to an edgy, moody, accompaniment – making ‘I was Innocent‘ a dark and intriguing early highlight.

After the heavy mood of the opening songs the pure folk-rock of ‘Maybe, Maybe Not‘ is a reminder of the kind of song Paul Simon used to be able to write.  The song poses perpetual questions of escape to a better, more fulfilling life – “maybe if I just keep walking / maybe if I don’t look back / Maybe if I leave it all behind / Maybe, or Maybe not?” – as the daily walk to work grinds on relentlessly.  For all the lightness it’s the daily destruction of dreams that life requires that’s being sung about.   ‘The Havoc Wreaker‘ has the band digging into a funky style of folk-rock, whilst VanWyck paints portraits of a woman who is at the least part Erinys.  Her threat is as relentless and unescapable as the song’s bass-line: “Here she come again – she the Havoc Wreaker – banging on your door begging to be let in /  better give her what she wants or you’ll get to keep her.”  Although, since we’re walking through a world of metaphor it’s just possible that VanWyck is singing of a different kind of relentless threat, an addiction that “moves on down in your arteries tightening her ice-cold grip / Did you think that you were safe from her embrace?”  It’s a metaphor that also seems to work as an explanation for ambiguous songs like ‘Seeweed Seller‘ and ‘The Dragon‘.

Prophets and Seers stalk the landscape of the island, from the upbeat Americana of ‘The Smiling Prophet‘ who offers to show ways to start all over again, to lose old pains and accept that the past is the past.  The blind ‘Seeweed Seller‘ by contrast offers a gentle exposure to a pain you may not want to hear: “her answer is soft as she feeds you your fortune – but baby be warned ‘cos she don’t sugar coat.”  The crepuscular ‘Ciceline‘ offers a third path “I tell the truth but I speak in riddles” she informs, as she questions the mistakes of the past and points the way to the future.

Lola with the Light Eyes‘ offers a perfect vision of love – the person who understands you – to the extent of seeing through all the carefully constructed facades.  Sweetened by strings it’s a beautiful ballad.   ‘The Way Out‘ is a harder edged ballad – where everything is on offer, except love.  The closer – ‘My Baby Rides a Dark Horse‘ – caps the album with an epic of desert folk, telling a tale of a long journey and the discovery of a lost treasure in a cavern, before a final headlong escape to…where?  We started with mystery, and in this we finish with an escape, albeit a mysterious escape.

What is it that makes VanWyck such an intriguing singer of songs?  One hears the words and is drawn into the tale as any good singer-songwriter should do, but there’s often that enigmatic mystery that requires the listener to dig deeper.  It’s not bolted onto the songs in the form of gothic touches to the music or clunky puzzles in the lyrics, it’s the subtle touch of words and voice that requires the listener to both enjoy the song at a superficial level and also to engage analytically.  Marrying logic and emotion is not a common achievement in the singer-songwriter sphere – to achieve it so well makes ‘The Epic Tale of the Stranded Man‘ a noteworthy release.


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10/10
10/10

About Jonathan Aird 1876 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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