In his first album of new material in six years, Alex Brown Church’s Sea Wolf finds the indie folk singer processing grief and searching for an escape from dark places (possibly explaining the album’s title Through a Dark Wood). Matching introspective lyrics with lush production and dynamic instrumentation, Sea Wolf has managed to write a heavy album with songs that remain as catchy as they are cathartic.
Opening track “Forward” is a somber, instrumental hymnal that sets up the album’s atmospheric production with a focus on acoustic guitars and spacious harmonics. This smoothly leads into the mid-tempo “Blood Pact”, which perfectly sets-up Church’s mindset on the album, “I can’t remember where I went before, I didn’t know if I could make it through the door. I’m coming out of it and it’s alright now”. The themes of feeling lost and trying to find your way to a better place play heavily through this collection of songs. During the writing of the album, Church dealt with the disintegration of a long-term relationship and the death of an estranged parent, and these songs are perfect reflections of the emotional state such trauma and tragedy can leave someone.
Church’s vocal delivery sways between a slow, emotive drawl and a hypnotic, hip-hop style phrasing, like on “Break it Down” or “Forever Nevermore”. The rich, layered instrumentation and stuttering beat of the former makes it a head-bobbing delight, while the latter’s chill, moseying vibe hides the uncertainty in the lyrics, as Church battles with his fears of asking for what he wants in a relationship.
First single, the acoustic-driven “Fear of Failure”, is both vulnerable and empowering, as Church sings to himself “I have to be brave, even though I’m still afraid”, with an immediacy that turns it into a personal anthem. Yet, it’s not the best track on the album – that honor goes to “I Went Up, I Went Down”. Though the lyrics are mostly Church listing off mundane habits and tasks, it’s done with the purpose of portraying a character attempting to simply live a normal life in the aftermath of a traumatic event, and fighting through the depression that sets in. Church’s vocals imbue each line with a meaningful pathos, helping the track eventually become uplifting.
Another one of Through a Dark Wood‘s most interesting songs is “Frank O’Hara”. Opening with menacing drums, these are soon juxtaposed against soothing strings and flowing synths, creating a dreamy, surreal landscape that fits perfectly as Church sings about driving through various vistas, listening to the voices that “haunted us”. There’s a striking wistfulness to the track, even as the elegiac music blunts the emotional sting.
At times, Sea Wolf‘s dedicated to mellow and mid-tempo songs grows wearisome, with tracks like “Moving Colors” lacking the dynamics that would help it really break out in exciting ways. Some tighter editing could also have helped strengthen tracks like “Under the Spell Again”, a relatable story of falling for someone you know you shouldn’t that meanders on too long. Church wisely ends the album with its most exuberant cut, “Two of Us”, which is as close to an upbeat rock ‘n roll song as you’ll find here.
Through a Dark Wood ultimately connects in subtle, powerful ways, providing a rich audible experience brimming with warmth and emotion. The full album drops on March 20th, but you can hear the pre-released tracks below: