Every now and again I stumble upon a recording which is so unfathomably beautiful it could only be the result of the most impossible of circumstances. I remember first hearing the debut Bon Iver album For Emma, Forever Ago and being captivated by the sheer emotion of the ghostly vocals that met my ears. This fascination grew further on hearing the back story of Justin Vernon’s self-imposed exile to the Wisconsin wilderness.
It has been five long years since the release of that record and no album has had such a profound impact on me personally since. That is until now however and the release of Michigan-based singer-songwriter Nathan K.’s latest effort, entitled Dishes.
The background of the album is thus; while on tour Nathan received an urgent phone call to return home to see his grandfather on his deathbed. At his request, Nathan played and sang for him during the final weeks of his life. At night, when Nathan couldn’t sleep, he documented what he had written on a 4-track recorder. When the inevitable happened and his grandfather passed away, Nathan returned to complete the tour he had started a few weeks previously. When it came to writing and recording his next album a few months later however he remembered the songs he had written at the hospital. These original recordings became Dishes.
As you might well expect themes of death, nostalgia and reflection are prevalent throughout, but, despite the dark subject nature, it is far from your doom and gloom 3am record. Instead there is a quiet yet defiant optimism to the collection. This is clear to see in “Hospital Walls” in which Nathan broods on the mortality of man and the general futileness of life. He does this however in an endearing way, not evoking the despair the topic would normally trigger.
Other highlights include opening track “For Your Own Good” where he recounts an event from his youth in which he was stopped by a policeman for speeding, the dreamy almost pop handclaps and infectious chorus of “Leave Them” and also the fragile melodies of penultimate track “Criminal”.
Nathan saves the best till last however in final song “Womb”. Here he brings Dishes full circle on itself, musing on the circular nature of life. While giving the album a sense of closure it also acts as a re-birth, the lyrical ponderings of new life enticing the listener to hit the play button once again and relive the record from the start.
Dishes is a singer-songwriter laying his heart bare for all to hear and, ultimately, criticise. It is a risky move as, when making any record dealing with such personal subject matter, it can come across as over-sentimental and even contrived. But Nathan K. navigates these pitfalls with poise, delivering one of the most delicately beautiful albums of 2012. Dark, intense yet paradoxically uplifting and optimistic. A must listen.