(feat. track – “Seven Years” [spotify])

Christopher Browder, who records as the one-man band Mansions, is one dark dude.  Sometimes he’s dark and brooding.  Sometimes he’s dark and seething.  Sometimes he’s dark and sad.  Sometimes he’s just plain old dark. If you think you’ve spotted any light in Dig Up The Dead’s ten tracks of bummer rock and folky slowcore, reconsider.

And yet Dig Up The Dead couldn’t be further from the lachrymose self-involvement of baby-bat goth or acoustic emo.  There’s no flourish here; where there’s pain, it’s pain as felt, not pain as acted out. Music this unabashedly sad is often a “look at me” ploy, but one gets the sense that Browder would prefer to be hiding in a dark corner right now, if it weren’t for the pesky fact that he makes his bones as a performing songwriter. He seemingly lacks even the will to quit.  As he puts it on the album-opening title track, “I have never been free // but I have always been cheap.”

Still, no matter how dour, how plodding (when bro sings “adrenaline is not my blood // amphetamines are not my love” in “Not My Blood”, he ain’t lying), how bleak Dig Up The Dead feels, there’s something weirdly life-affirming about it. It takes a hopeful and rebellious heart to shout into the void, even if you’re just telling that void how void-y it is.  As down as the album may be, when listening I never feel like I’m getting dragged down with it.

A lot of that can be chalked up to Browder’s skill as a craftsman; every hook is memorable, every phrase quotable. The recordings themselves are largely minimalist, but not underproduced; little moments like the dissociative self-harmonies on “Call Me When It’s Over” or “Blackest Sky”’s near-false ending coda give lie to the tremendous care Browder’s put into his recordings.

It’s rare that I can listen to any album with an unwavering focus on one specific emotion regardless of my mood at the time, much less an album this intense, but somehow Dig Up The Dead plays well to all my dispositions. I can’t remember a single instance where one of its tracks came up on shuffle and I felt the compulsion to hit skip. The songs of Dig Up The Dead are very precise and strong evocations of a particular mood, yet they manage to consistently transcend that mood. I always feel like coming back for more.

(If you can find it, early copies of Dig Up The Dead were released along with an acoustic recording of the full album, and while it’s not essential, it’s more than just a quieter recreation. “Blackest Sky” takes on all sorts of new dimensions, and not just because it’s the heaviest track on the original recoring; when transposed to a different key, it turns from a dark and desperate lament for lost youth to an almost wistfully elegaic paean to those years.  Meanwhile, “Yer Voice”‘s tentative declaration of purpose twists into something approximating a love song. It’s a welcome complement to an already exceptional piece of work.)