ALBUM REVIEW: Mountain Man – Magic Ship


For years they hid from us. Like the hermetic enigma their name conjures, Mountain Man headed for the hills after releasing their hypnotic 2010 debut, Made the Harbor. The siren-like harmonies of Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amilia Meath faded into the mist; Meath resurfaced four years later as one half of Sylvan Esso, bringing folksy sensibilities to Nick Sanborn’s infectious electronic production, and the duo’s runaway success made Mountain Man seem like more of a precursor than a project to which Meath would someday return.

And yet, that piercing acoustic music that hits the soul, cutting through the air with no other sound to travel by but the human voice and a casually strummed guitar – the kind of music that hits a mark that the 808s just will never dig into – began to garner a sort of cult following. Mountain Man’s magic was in its stunning simplicity, their songs the kind that easily soundtrack languid afternoons, campfire gatherings, wine makings, or family-style dinners with friends. These same words, moments, and experiences pepper the much-too-long-awaited stories of the group’s second album, Magic Ship, released on the last day of September this year.

The reunion is as welcome a surprise as the group’s origin – Mountain Man discovered each other by following the sounds of each other’s voices through dorm rooms in a small college in Vermont. The following that has knit itself around them has developed in a similarly organic fashion – a diehard collection of humans who tripped down some internet hole, or happened upon one of their few fireside acoustic performances. Ultimately, it was Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner that officially reawakened Mountain Man when they booked a set for the trio at the 2017 iteration of Eaux Claires arts festival. Just over a year later, Magic Ship set sail.

Their sophomore album, recorded in Meath’s home studio in North Carolina, is a retrospective of sorts, a glance into personal anecdotes, memories unfolded, mistakes made, humans loves, and humans lost. The mantra of the album is “Don’t waste time on guilt,” a saying waved across their new website and album poster. You can’t help but wonder what guilt they carry. Is it guilt toward each other, toward the way their own separate roads unfolded and pulled them apart, or some other guilt they are trying to leave behind?

Magic Ship offers a musical collage interwoven with these kinds of questions. The sounds are now of women not searching for their place in life, but instead teaching their stories shared and gained alone. This album speaks to the wisdom of life, and what we lose and what we gain by walking into the path of the unknown, seeking to know ourselves above all else.

Opening up with the familiarity of their unaccompanied vocals, “Window” seems to travel through time from another place. The lyrics are indeed a first glimpse into what the last eight years has inspired in the hearts of these artists: “I was lost, I was bored, by the thought of wanting more.”

While I understand the desire to bring in another element of sound in their use of the guitar on Magic Ship, it sometimes detracts from the depth and beauty of the purity in their vocals – arguably the definitive edge that has always set this group apart from the other folk musicians pulling from similar influences. Most of the fourteen tracks here are less than three minutes long, making each seem like some fleeting fable;  naked, unadorned vocals only add to this effect. Songs like “Baby Where You Are,” “Moon,” and “Slow Wake Up Monday Morning” feel more common and straightforward, but work to make the album more accessible; the guitar works well in early single “Rang Tang Ring Toon” in that the minimal picking takes a back seat to the trio’s vocals.

Overall, Magic Ship notably features more refined recording, for better or worse, There was something in the lo-fi echo of their first album (Made the Harbor was recorded in an abandoned warehouse with no budget, as opposed to a studio built by Meath’s post-Sylvan Esso success) that remains captivating in comparison to the no longer frayed edges of Magic Ship. But higher fidelity means the songs come through loud and clear this time – it’s almost enough to abandon the nostalgic, fuzzy feel of Harbor‘s aesthetic.

But after eight years of listening and relistening, the stack of memories riding on the lyrical melodies of Made The Harbor admittedly makes it hard to jump into a new compilation and say its impact will be the same as those of that first album. Cooking food with friends to “Honey Bee,” road trips with “Dog Song,” late evening porch nights with lovers as “Animal Tracks” played distantly – this is the emotional content that has yet to blossom in Magic Ship‘s nascent wake. Perhaps it will take another eight years to know its power of memory, time, and life faded into song; in the meantime I find myself meandering over certain memories, touching them with a hint of sadness and that longing ping that trembles beneath those moments we wish lasted longer. In the final phrase of this new piece of work, I find respite from the memories, longing, desires and dreams past with their last words: “It hurts, but that’s alright.”

The track, “Guilt,” might apply to anyone’s lingering sense of regret, but it also provides some absolution for the record’s three creators. “You can think about it, and be mean to your insides…” goes the almost nursery-rhyme-ish line, “Or it can just be something that happened that way, that makes you who you are today.” With this 55-second a cappella ditty, the three end their album by letting go of what might have transpired differently over the past eight years – perhaps musically, or perhaps in general, as life happens to us all whether we sing about it or not.

It’s a testament to both their brilliance and their humility that their fans are still by their side almost a decade later – happy, excited, and relieved to take in their voices once again. At a Magic Ship release show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, NY, a group of followers came together, legs pressed against one another to be as close as possible to their small, yet strong vocalities. As if no time had passed at all, their vocals immediately cut through the din of noise to strike chords in my memory that had nearly forgotten to catch their breath. Together in that room we reawakened our love for the secret music we had found so long ago.

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