With the twang of a guitar, and that trademark voice – the sound of ice cracking as it is engulfed by warmer waters – Dan Michaelson opens his fourth album, Blindspot. From the very beginning of his debut record back in 2009 Michaelson’s voice, always full of such a fragile yearning, has been the centrepiece of every release.
In many ways, the voice will always be Michaelson’s iron lung. It is so unique, and so desperately beautiful that it couldn’t possibly be anything but the focus of his recordings. At the same time, though, so limited is it in terms of variety and versatility that his band the Coastguards are always stuck playing the same old sounds. There was such little development between debut Saltwater and follow-ups Shakes and Sudden Fiction that one could put the three records on shuffle and never be able to determine which track belonged to which.
Perhaps, then, this explains the approach Michaelson has taken to instrumentation on Blindspot. It is, quite frankly, gorgeous. At times sullen, at times simply lonesome, few albums have been this evocative of such a range of emotions and feelings – all of them in some way sad. Even when the music borders on inspirational in a sort of ‘Sigur Ros, but subtle’ way, the general inspiration isn’t a cheerfully manipulative Coldplay-esque ‘we can do anything!’, but rather an only vaguely hopeful ‘maybe, just maybe, we’ll make it through this’.
There is a reason, however, for the lack of this slight grandeur on previous albums – and again it comes down to Michaelson’s voice. As limited as ever, the newly invigorated music often swallows it up – lyrics lost behind heavy piano and creaking vocals. When they peak through, Michaelson’s words remain as steadfastly morose as ever they have been.
Sure, he promises ‘Honey, I won’t let you down’ on ‘Tremors’, but it’s sung with the voice of a man who has already resigned himself to doing exactly that. Even his sentiments on finding love focus on pessimism – in ‘Every Fold and Crease’, the album highlight, Michaelson sings ‘You’re scared of growing old/Without someone who knew you were beautiful before’. But this is Michaelson’s thing, his selling point. He finds the beauty in sadness, and makes even the process of ageing something slightly more hopeful than it is. ‘Your beauty is buried in every fold and crease’, he argues, before the music builds up with plodding stoicism, the peak of the album in every way.
There is always a disclaimer on a Dan Michaelson review, and that is to tell the reader that in fact the album is good, and worth listening to, worth owning. Our disappointment never lies in the writing, or the music. Even his voice remains as beautiful as ever it was. Rather, our disappointment continues to focus on the wasted potential of Michaelson’s ability as a writer of songs. Blindspot is certainly the closest he has come to achieving what he is capable of, but Michaelson remains a long way from his the potential pinnacle of his abilities. Perhaps he would be better suited writing for a singer who could do justice to his ideas.
Words: Stephen Thomas