The Hidden Words
Free Thyself From The Fetters Of This World
Release Date: Dec 3rd, 2011
Label: Self Release
Reviewing a religious record with only a pedestrian understanding of the religion at hand is a difficult task. Art can often be analyzed through a personal understanding of a theme – love, nostalgia, or death, for instance – and even though it’s almost never an exact representation of the artist’s intention, a sense of connection can still be formed. But what do you do when an album carries a theme that’s explicitly difficult for you to relate to? Free Thyself From The Fetters Of This World is that kind of album, and finding that sense of connection will be a challenge for most listeners, myself concluded.
Let’s start by getting the two big pieces of context out of the way and then dive into the album itself. First off, The Hidden Words is the first time since The Unicorns where we have Alden Penner and Jamie Thomas back in the studio making music together. Even if you’re a huge fan of The Unicorns, like myself, this is merely background and not important at all for the listening experience because simply put, The Hidden Words sounds nothing like The Unicorns, save for Penner’s voice. The second piece of context is The Hidden Words’ backbone and focus – the Bahá'í faith. The best thing you can do before listening to this album is to head over to Wikipedia and get a better understanding of the Bahá'í faith (click here)… all right, you’re back, let’s continue. Oh, and one more thing: to add to the difficulty in reviewing this record, Penner slips in and out of English, Spanish, and French throughout the album. So, I’m backed against a wall, with a practically inaccessible record made by some of the musicians I love most. The only honest way for me to approach reviewing this record is to outline my personal reaction to listening to it, and share my thoughts on how the various sounds over the ten track record create a tapestry of moods that can make even the most anti-religious person feel something spiritual.
In spite of the record’s challenging subject matter, Free Thyself From The Fetters Of This World is an album framed by simplicity and strong songwriting. Gone are the robust explosions of electronics and shattering percussion featured on Penner’s last two projects. Instead, we have an emphasis on minimalism. Most songs highlight a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, “suitcase” drums (from what I gather, drumming with brushes on an actual suitcase), and vocals that have no large production moments to hide behind. This structure suits Penner and The Hidden Words well because his vocals, no matter the accompaniment, always spill over with emotion and drive the songs from start to finish.
The standouts on the album are definitely the back-to-back tracks “Belleza” and “Dis”. Like all great songs, both rise above the simple label of sound and cement themselves as pieces of music that can affect a listener outside the listen. They’re wrought with introspection and as I stated before, have a spiritual grace that transcends whatever you believe concerning religion or faith. There is something bigger at work in these two songs outside of simply being pieces of sound strung together.
The album features a great deal of playfulness to help lighten up the darker moments. The opening track “Paradise Of The Placeless” is a warm invitation into the album with its quickly strummed guitar, handclaps, and bright vocals. The title track plays a lot like a circle sing-along, with quick bursts of strings that interrupt a Mississippi John Hurt-esque bouncy guitar and large group vocals. Touches like these freshen up an album that is mainly rooted in softer, more subtle moments that demand the listener collapse into sounds that are simplistic, yet rich in depth.