nick porcaro is on the hunt …
Loyal fans followed the golden voice of Casey Crescenzo on a wild and wonderful musical journey ever since The Dear Hunter’s inception in 2005. After an EP and two full-lengths chronicling the life of the character from whom the band takes its name, Casey took a break from Acts 1–3 for yet another grand undertaking: 2011’s The Color Spectrum, a collection of nine EPs covering an impossibly wide range of emotional and musical expression.
These 36 songs showed unprecedented growth for Crescenzo as a songwriter. No longer hindered by the gargantuan song lengths and dramaturgical complexity of the Acts, the EPs presented a fluent pop craftsman with the rare knack for sneaking strong melodies into even the strangest of arrangements. From Black’s industrial stomp to Blue’s liquid melancholy, the collection proved immensely satisfying for fans and critics alike. Nevertheless, it came without an obvious path for Casey’s future as an artist.
Somewhere along the way all the thematic concepts and overarching narratives tired on Crescenzo. The end result, Migrant, marks his true arrival as a singer/songwriter. Here he strips back much of the excess from previous releases in order to dig deep into the damaged soul behind his music. It’s a bold move that doesn’t always work, but when it does the results are unquestionable. Opener “Bring You Down” starts somber, with only a lone piano guiding the way until Casey leads layers of strings, guitar and horns to a stunning climax. “Every sudden feeling of helplessness led me down to the bottom of myself,” he cries, punctuating every syllable, and the music plummets perfectly through a churning spiral of shifting time signatures. Never before has nauseous uncertainty sounded so thrilling.
Elsewhere Crescenzo employs well-worn sonic tricks with new panache. “Shame” is very Violet in nature, but its seductive strings and guitar swells breathe delicately in the mix instead of overpowering it. By the time Casey screams his head off hysterically in the last chorus, the theatrics are entirely earned and it transitions flawlessly into road-ready rocker “An Escape.” (Contrary to my Singles Party review, that track works far better here than on its own.)
The declarative chorus of “The Kiss of Life” blasts off with expected indie rock propulsion, only to morph into a contemplative, Latin-tinged rhythm for the second verse. The undulating beat is revisited in an all-too-short bridge section reminiscent of early Santana. Casey’s classic rock fascination continues on “This Vicious Place”, with a tasteful solo break that would make David Gilmour proud. In general, the sense of atmosphere on this record is deliberate, delicate and somewhat Pink Floydian in nature. This sort of subtlety is refreshing both for Casey and “the scene;” a whole generation of bands could take a page or two from the breathtaking dynamics of “Cycles.”
But there are faults, of course, and the faults of Migrant lie primarily with its pacing. Leadoff single “Whisper” is the most immediate track here and perhaps Casey’s best A-side to date, yet nothing else here is as intense or attention-grabbing. New listeners will surely be confused once track two ends and they realize none of the ten tracks to follow will hit the soaring, anguished peak of that chorus. It may have been wiser to include the song near the end of the album, as “Let Go” is that sequence’s only real burst of energy.
Elsewhere Casey leaves a few strong ideas unfinished. “Girl” features competent instrumental grooving instead of a second verse, and so the repeated chorus that follows feels out of place. The song is enjoyable, especially with its sweet and delicate vocal harmonies from Casey’s sister, Azia, but it could have amounted to more. “Sweet Naiveté” is similarly pleasant but disappointing. Its sweeping orchestral arrangement actually distracts from Casey’s lyrics, leading to a finish that peters out for seemingly no reason. And finally, the duo of “This Vicious Place” and “Don’t Look Back” are solid but not quite satisfying as an album conclusion.
But perhaps some criticisms are unwarranted. With all this talk of dizzying crescendos and groovy rhythms, it’s easy to overlook the defining characteristic of Migrant: restraint. It’s a relatively new concept in the oeuvre of The Dear Hunter, and one with many rewards for patient listeners. This is no album to throw on as background noise but one that demands close and repeated examination. Where Casey once wrote symphonies that shout their arrival from the mountaintops, here he crafts little pockets of life that reveal themselves to you. If Acts 1–3 are music as theatrics, and The Color Spectrum is music as discovery, then Migrant is music as everyday life, with all the hints of glory and pangs of despair that come with the journey.
“We move along when there’s nothing left for us here,” Casey sings on “Sweet Naiveté”. It will be a joy to see where he takes us next.