People may be wary of or fascinated by a good transformation story, but the best kind of transformation, one that *everyone* should jump up and down about, is the step-by-step process of an artist honing their sound over the course of albums until it eventually reaches its fullest potential. Their future may be unknown, but Lord Huron are either there or well on their way.
In reviews for their latest album, Vide Noir, the lyrical quote that keeps getting pulled is a refrain from the first track: the amnesiacally-inclined “I don’t know who I am / I don’t know where I am”. The hypothesis in play is that this is supposed to represent a confession of sorts from Lord Huron’s songwriter, Ben Schneider, a way of winkingly acknowledging that this album will be different from the first two, that his wanderings toward self-discovery are still leading him onward into some unknown new territory. And why wouldn’t that be the case? It’s their first album for a major label. It’s their first album that was produced by someone outside of the band. It’s their first album with a title in French.
But don’t be distracted by the spiffy new duds. It’s the same dark, man-shaped emptiness underneath.
It all begins with the unlikeliness of Lord Huron finding their success at all. And with tens of thousands of each record sold, high spots on the Billboard 200, over 6 million monthly listeners on Spotify, well-placed songs in TV and film including a featured track in Netflix’s most popular teen-suicide show, etc. etc., they are pretty successful by most of the metrics we’ve got. This is a band, however, that came up in the tail-end of the late aughts folk fluke, following closely behind acts like Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart, and The Lumineers into a strange scene that celebrated an odd kind of Americana lyricism, punctuated by lots of “oooooos” and “aaaaaaaahs” for the crowd to sing along with. Ole Mumford burned brightest (and shortest), but the whole movement was destined to become a footnote after its inevitable overexposure and a predictable backlash against banjos, unless your act had something else to offer.
What made Lord Huron such an odd fit for this gaggle was their unrelenting lyrical bleakness, an obsession with death so surreally repetitive that it’s almost pathological, but always buried behind a wall of smoothly pleasant strumming guitar and Schneider’s irresistible voice, which has the slightest roughness to it in the same way that a recently buzzed head does. Try to stop rubbing it; you don’t want to. Sure, the overall sound is occasionally a bit melancholy, but not so much that it’s off-putting to the masses that have flocked to them. It’s a peppy slog to the grave as viewed through the early Lord Huron catalogue.
Let’s deep dive in an obnoxiously completist way.
Their first album, Lonesome Dreams, shows plenty of lyrical signs of where they’re going:
“Maybe I’m headin’ to die”; “They’ll string me up for all that I’ve done”; “I land on an island coast / Where the only souls I see are ghosts”; “All the dead seem to know where I am”; “Lie where I land, let my bones turn to sand”; “Under the waves and the earth of an age / Lie a thousand old northerners’ graves”; “I said we’re all gonna die, but I’ll never believe it / I love this world and I don’t wanna leave it / Said that death is a deal that you cannot refuse / But I love you, girl, and I don’t wanna lose you / I don’t wanna die at all / I wanna be the man who lives forever / I ain’t never gonna die and I want you to come”; “Till the daylight comes or I’m dead and gone”; “Still, we must die; all things must end”; “I’ll be waiting here till the stars fall out of the sky ”; “Death is a wall, but it can’t be the end.”
They then doubled down on their topic of choice in Strange Trails, letting nary a track go by without something morbid pattering down like raindrops on your future graveyard plot.
Track One: “Yes I know that love is like ghosts / Oh, and what ain’t living can never really die”
Track Two: “I had a vision tonight that the world was ending / And the sky was falling and time was bending”; “What if the world dies with the sunrise?”; “If I’m a’goin to die I’m gonna go in style”
Track Three: “Sure as hell he was dead as they come / And he was already starting to smell”; “I know how to live, I don’t know how to die”; “And he waved goodbye with his dead man’s hand”
Track Four: “You spend your whole life dreaming and you wake up dead”; “When I die, I’m coming right on back for you”
Track Five: “And when I die I want her lying by my side / In my grave, in my grave”
Track Six: “I lie in the drifting snow, bleeding out as it covers me over / If spring comes before I’m found, just throw my bones in a hole in the ground”
Track Seven: “The fair and the brave and the good must die / I seen the other side of living, I know heaven’s a lie” “They put me in the ground but I’m back from the dead”
Track Eight: “I took a little journey to the unknown / And I come back changed, I can feel it in my bones / I fucked with the forces that our eyes can’t see / Now the darkness got a hold on me”; “Follow me into the endless night”
Track Nine: “Darkness brings evil things, oh, the reckoning begins / (You will open the yawning grave)”
Track Ten: “Just the endless frozen pines / But I wonder how they know, cause they don’t die if they don’t grow”; “Oh, I don’t wanna be the only one living if all of my friends are gone”
Track Eleven: “I’m a goner, I guess”
Track Twelve: “I’ve been running through life and cruising toward death”; “I’m just wearing old bones from those that came first”
Track Thirteen: “Done nothin’ with my life for no one, I’m just waitin’ to die”; “Pulling me outta the grave what a nice surprise / I die when our nights end, but I only stay dead til I see you again”; “Don’t wanna die, I wanna wander the world with you”
Track Fourteen: “Haunted by the ghost of you”
With Vide Noir, translating directly to ‘Black Void’, Lord Huron has made good on their thematic promise with an album that not only continues to talk the talk but at long last puts its musical might behind it in what turns out to be a stingingly dark opus.
Their first brilliant move was in delivering an obvious and unmistakable concept album to their new label, Republic Records of the Universal Music Group. Take THAT, UMG! Songs blend into each other, singles are not readily apparent, and there’s even the “Ancient Names” Part I and Part II suite. The production is grittier, and Schneider’s once invulnerable voice now ducks in and out of the instrumentation like a dim light in the fog. Sometimes shaky in what sounds like a mixture of fear and paranoia, sometimes steady like the guide that he’s always served as through Lord Huron’s cosmic trip, half-Morricone Western and half-2001: A Space Odyssey fever dream.
Opening with the misty “Lost in Time & Space”, the traditional Lord Huron sound gets a floating-through-the-cosmos treatment with some harp arpeggios, but this soon vanishes into the explosion of “Never Ever” with its gritty two-note garage rock riffs, certainly an unexpected move from this polished crew, but it brings us back to Earth swiftly. The aforementioned “Ancient Names” suite kicks in next, seguing from mellotron-esque synths floating like nebulae before getting cut in half by a metallic bass line, another brilliantly used grounding device. Part II features Schneider’s most frenzied vocals, and when he belts out “I scream and shout like this / Just to prove to the world that I still exist / I don’t believe in life / And I won’t believe in death ’til I die,” it’s for real this time. The fury fades into a kind of Indian raga, further highlighting the mysticism of the collection.
And it is mystical in its vibes. The Emerald Star, featured on the album cover, comes up in “The Balancer’s Eye” and “When the Night Is Over” before getting its own closing track, “Emerald Star.” In any kind of story-sense, it doesn’t matter to me what it represents; there’s just an otherworldly beauty to the image that plays itself out across this musical realm. The title track dabbles in a variety of Eastern sounds fusing together into a trippy psych nightmare: “Tears of sorrow or tears of joy / Drops in my cup as my mind is destroyed / Staring into a pure, black void.” The effect takes us beyond the Western backdrops of Lord Huron’s past and into a haunting future where the darkness and oddness of their art is finally allowed to speak directly to us without the trappings of a particular musical scene’s constraints.
Keep Lord Huron Weird.
Ancient Names, Parts I & II
Wait by the River
Back from the Edge
David C Casey