Poor Nameless Boy is one of the sleepers of the Sask music scene. I don’t mean that he’s not out hustling, working on new projects and building his name. What I mean is that he values sleepiness in music. I’ve seen him play in both small clubs and festival stages, and his music always carries a serene sort of aura that lulls the listener into a comfortable and blissful state. I’ve heard him commend other artists for their ability to put him to sleep with a genuine enthusiasm that totally counteracts whatever connotation of boredom that sentiment carries. I’m happy to say that his new record Bravery retains that sleepiness without being limited to it.
Poor Nameless Boy released Bravery on Calgary’s Chronograph Records on January 15th. It is his first release since 2013, and it offers something a little different than the previous album, The Activity Book, which is one of my favourite Sask records. Bravery, however, is a collection of more varied tunes from growing songwriter Joel Henderson rendered onto record with the help of veteran Regina musicians such as guitarist Thomas St. Onge, violinist Carmelle Pretzlaw, pianist Jon Dyck, and a slough of other Sask talent.
Like I said, Joel Henderson prides himself on the sleepy quality of his music. And although I’d have happily embraced another album of sleepy folk melodies backed by gentle instrumentals, Joel didn’t settle for just that. Instead, Bravery holds folk bangers like “Rivers and Trees” and “Atlantic Ocean” up against slow, dreamy tunes like “Radio Return” and the title track, “Bravery.” What’s more, he offers songs that take us right out of the standard folk template with less conventional harmonic and structure choices that serve to draw the listener’s ear and intrigue us to listen further. Songs like “30 Photographs” showcase a hint of smoky grit that expands the record’s sonic palette and shows us that Joel’s songwriting is dynamic and expanding and at times far less sleepy than he would have us believe.
On a record like this, my ears are immediately drawn to the songwriting. Particular in the lyrics, Joel’s writing demonstrates a confident and purposeful voices. His lyrics very clearly attempt to comment on his own personal experience, speaking decisively about actions and philosophy in a way that makes you question your own personal values. Certainly, it is often the job of an artist to make us think, particularly about ourselves. Joel does just that. Don’t worry, though, he does it in a way that is unmistakably gentle and kind, and if I know Joel, I’m sure he’d be ready with a warm hug if you leave one of his songs feeling down.
Another interesting feature of the record is how the theme of bravery subtly permeates many of the tracks on the album. Between the lyrics in “Dream Boat” which outline the resolution of a hardened sea captain and those of “Fairy Tale” which spin stories of sorcerers and dragons, Joel conjures up fantastical imagery of quintessential bravery. But perhaps even more interesting is the bravery he captures in more relatable topics. The mid-record musical promise “I’m Not Going Anywhere” smoulders with the bravery it takes to keep a long-standing relationship alive. Pledging to “take turns being each other’s salvation,” Poor Nameless Boy offers up a solemn act of resolution that, though certainly less glamorous than other notions of bravery, signals a deep, relatable courage. Throughout Bravery, Poor Nameless Boy offers up such a broad scope of lyrical craftsmanship that anyone will be able to feel at home somewhere in this record.
The Stand Out:
When Joel took the stage for the Bravery CD release show at the Artesian in Regina, he was clearly prepared for an evening of widely contrasting musical offerings. The group he had supporting him changed size and shape constantly, moving seamlessly from a fully instrumented folk-rock outfit on tunes like “Rivers and Trees” to the bare bones of “Leave Myself Behind,” a duet between himself and Denise Valle, accompanied simply by Jon Dyck on piano. In a live context, “Leave Myself Behind” was certainly the stand out. It is a deeply pensive and starkly dramatic piece about finding change in oneself, moving on in life and who is there to guide you through. The studio version lacks some of the beauty and drama of the live version, but my hope is that Joel will perform this piece in a similar configuration once again, and I look forward to it next time I get to see it live.
The stand out on the record was the tune “Saturn,” a dusty, wispy ode to a very particular type of person. Joel describes the person as such: “Someone who is so caring, carefree and down to earth, but if they floated away one day it would make absolute sense. Those people are tough to figure out. Beautiful hearts though.” I think this character that Joel is rendering with his lyrics is very identifiable. We all know someone like this, and there will be a phrase in this song that will hit you with a pang of nostalgia – perhaps for a long-gone significant other or a close friend – and you’ll feel a sense of wistful longing. I think the arrangement and production of the song really embodies that. In fact, it does the best of any song on the record for musically capturing the intent of the lyrics. Its spacious, rolling wash of sound is the perfect musical representation of the person in question. Tied up with sweet melodies hung on Joel’s distinct pleading voice and backed by the gentle, gritty tremolo of Thomas St. Onge’s guitar, it all makes for a truly remarkable musical package.
In summation, Bravery is a record about growth and change. It’s about courage, both fantastical and simple. It’s about the courage it took for Joel of Poor nameless Boy to move in this direction. I can’t wait to hear him perform more and more of it live and see where he’s headed next.