A Big Arrival: A review of Swale’s There’s No One Here
In 1961, Barney and Betty Hill were driving home late at night near Franconia Notch, in New Hampshire, when they were abducted by aliens. After seeing the spaceship and hearing a series of beeps and buzzes, the couple entered an altered state of consciousness. A second set of the same noises brought back their senses. Despite feeling like no time had passed, the odometer on the Hills’ Chevrolet Bel Air indicated they’d traveled over 35 miles. According to the clock, several hours had elapsed. Two weeks later, Betty had five vivid dreams depicting, among other things, Barney sleepwalking toward a light, her being led by small grey men in blue suits through a dark forest, a thorough examination aboard a UFO, and being offered a book of strange symbols, a gift later rescinded following a disagreement among the spacemen. In addition to Betty’s dreams, enduring memories stayed with the Hills, who, after reporting their story and submitting to hypnosis and series of interviews, went back to live their regular lives. There’s No One Here is an album of such regular lives, where complicated pasts haunt with an almost intriguing despair. When Swale touches down with a reedy horn opener, I’ll Start by Opening, regularity is interrupted and a change of consciousness is underway.
The record is profound for its lyrical sincerity. Its lines record time the way home movies or shaky shots on phones do, as unmitigated proof of living, a quick capsule of the “is” captured for posterity. There is little filtering and fudging and the band’s acceptance of loose ends left frayed by false starts, in-the-moment mirth, midlife tedium, and the glory and bullshit between is unblinking. It’s all there. “Release your records,” they implore on song two—then they do just that.
Three full-lengths in, Swale is well-established as Vermont’s rhapsodists of the acutely personal and hyper self-aware. “I feel like a loser some of the time/And there’s no one here to tell me otherwise,” Amanda Gustafson sings, begetting both the song and the record’s titles, on Loser. Despite the lines’ desolation, the song is a bouncy flit, an affirming stare-down of dejection. Where it might have wallowed in angst, Loser instead engages despondency from a dispassionate vantage, presumably earned through its composers’ own frontline antagonism. The detachment gives the song, and much of the record, a renewed cool and depth not quite present on Swale’s previous efforts, A Small Arrival and The Next Instead, though the latter certainly comes close.
On Wooden Heart, Gustafson questions the narratives that constitute personal realities, the source of both security and dread. “Do you know what you feel/Do you know it for real?” she asks. Like Loser, a song accepting that we sometimes feel like losers because sometimes we are, Wooden Heart embraces the absence of firm consolation. The resulting freedom is unnerving but ultimately rewarding, as long as level heads endure. “Don’t flinch,” Gustafson sings in lullaby.
In addition to its lyrical band-on-the-couch bent, There’s No One Here is also an homage to art as documentation, proofs as proof, records as records. “Look at us, we’re made of wax,” Eric Olsen sings on the aforementioned Release Your Records. The line doubles as a pessimistic reminder of mortality—“No one makes it out alive,” Olsen adds and repeats—while celebrating recorded sound’s ability to conjure what’s past. Art creates a permanence that’s at least more lasting, ideally, than the artist. The instrumental bookending of the album, with I’ll Start by Opening and Here’s Where You Were, is another ode to records as finite, self-enclosed letters to later times.
Co-producer Ryan Power’s maverick prowess behind the control board makes permanence worth it. From Olsen’s lightly scuffed vocals on tracks like Drug Laws and All Down Tonight to the tempering of the band’s impulse to let loose, Power shows constraint where lesser ears might have indulged in cranking gains, masking imperfections with undue reverb, and allowing guitar solos to wank on too long. Not that the wheels don’t blissfully come off. All Down Tonight signs off with a saxxed-up vamp that would have made sense booming from a 1970s roller rink, while the sublime Every Last One of Us gives the record its anthemic anchor. Here, Olsen rips his tone to slivers over his bandmates repeating “we can all be that way” lyric, the only line in the song. Well-restrained, there is catharsis where ostentation might have been.
On Felon, Power’s measured hand unites with both lyrics and music to coalesce thematically around the forbearance of foreboding. While Gustafson’s words run through the tedium of habitual routine, the song itself follows the standard rock format. But the band digs in rather than attempt wild diversions from the seemingly mundane. They embrace the form and build harmony within its constraint. The melancholy steams off.
Parts of There’s No On Here are connected to the whole via a subtly theatrical bent. Songs reference and quote one another, such as Wooden Heart’s “I’ll Start by Opening” lyric, developing themes and implied narratives as the record builds. Swale’s dramatic inclination makes sense given the band’s roots writing for Burlington’s annual Spielpalast Cabaret, though the musical devices deployed aren’t burlesque by any means. They’re more fitting for a musical adaptation of something like Woody Allen’s unsmiling Interiors than say Chicago or Cabaret. Theirs would be a musical well worth watching, though nobody here is belting codas of solidarity.
A solemn suite of slow burns caps things off, and, for such a long record, the ending feels too soon. During the descent one can’t help but hope for the up-tempo pulse of another Drug Laws or Safe to Say (a Jeremy Frederick tune showcasing the drummer’s ever-evolving songwriting). Though that’s been the point throughout: if you’re going to wait for consolation, you’re going to keep waiting. You might as well repeat the record.
And so with Here’s Where You Were, there we are, back on the highway after the abduction, heading someplace with an intention now fogged by new sounds, lost in lights since departed. Something might manifest later in dreams, but will what looms really befit the present dread?