From the opening notes to the final ones, the first solo album by Sam Healy, SAND, is a stunning, immersive ride. Mysteriously, SAND is at once glorious, introspective, resignated, and triumphal.
Throughout SAND, Healy layers tensions. Indeed, tensions lurk and hover every where in and throughout this album. In the end, all find resolution, and this is much of what makes SAND so utterly brilliant and compelling. There are walls of sound, there are depths of sound, and there are tidal waves of sound.
There are also silences, many of which are deafening. Some silences allow the listener to pause, but Healy uses most of his silences to create a playful anxiety. Tellingly, some of the silences within the tracks are longer than those between the tracks.
In the last half century of rock, one might readily compare SAND to Talk Talk, to the Beach Boys, to Mew, to ELO, to Catherine Wheel, and to Pink Floyd. But, without a doubt (and I’ve had the joy of corresponding a bit with Healy), Sam Healy is very much his own man and artist. He’s as dedicated to his music as he is intelligent and witty. Yet another perfectionist.
Defining SAND, (though, there’s nothing about SAND that one could not call “particular” or merely representative) Healy juxtaposes minimalist rhythms with swirling eddies and currents of dense sounds, samples, strings, and always interesting lyrical insights.
I would never want this last part of what I just wrote to be lost, somehow, in this review. Healy possesses the gifts of the poet. Words find their places, rather perfectly. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,”
And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious.
If I have one frustration with the reviewers of the current manifestation of progressive and post-progressive rock (overall, not at any one particular outlet) it’s that too few critics look at the words. Yet, if one looks carefully at the lyrics being produced by Spawton and Longdon, Tillyson, Kilminster, or Healy, she or he will see the poetic insights equivalent to the best of the 19th-century English romantics. (And, of course, I’m not even including the non-Brits. Add the Scandinavians and North Americans in, and we’re experiencing a brilliant moment of poetic revival. But, this isn’t the purpose of this post. . . . For now, trust me that Healy is a master of words, a smith of words, if you will.)
Not only does he master his musical material, but he knows which word to use to emphasize the music, and which music to employ to emphasize the word. Without getting religious here, it would be fair to state that something sacramental or incarnational appears when Healy puts words to notes and notes to words.
My favorite line of SAND:
Suspicious architecture rises on the plains of our doubt.
This is not the only gem. Healy’s words drop mischievously like bombs at times, and always to the delight of the listener.
Without your triage and telegraph
I’m a rudderless antique oil-powered destroyer
While the reason slips away beneath the everyday
White picket fences circumscribe the lies that started out
Innocent as not complaining when you feel slighted
In the material promoting SAND, Healy said that he needed a “palate cleanser” after writing and recording his first two albums as North Atlantic Oscillation (also on Kscope). And, as it turns out, Healy recorded all of this on his own, with only the most minimal help from others. He wrote, produced, mixed, and engineered the entirety of SAND. Would it be fair, then, to call SAND something akin to NAO 2.5? Not in the least. This is its own album and own project with its own purpose, meaning, and direction. Anyone who loves NAO will additionally throw her or his love to SAND. But, SAND is something different and original.
As the opening line of the album states, “There’s weather enough for us all.” Whether Healy meant this to have a double meaning or not, it comes with one for the listener. Healy’s certainly not distancing himself from NAO, he’s just noting there’s much to do, much to discover, and much to create.
Yet, this is clearly a Healy project. There are just two things that Healy will never be able to escape, though I also very much hope he never tries. First, Healy has one of the most distinctive voices in the rock world. It has the depth of everything David Longdon brings to Big Big Train and the lush beauty (yes, I’m calling a man’s voice beautiful, as it is) of Leah McHenry or Sarah McLachlan. It carries the urgency of Catherine Wheel but also offers the varied tones (sorry, I’m not a musician, so I might not be using the proper terminology) of what Andy Partridge was capable of with the best of XTC, such as what he did on The Big Express. Healy’s voice is the music, to a large extent, and the other instruments really serve to augment what he’s capable of, vocally.
An Artist Colony
Kscope, the home of Healy’s music, seems a small but mighty paradise to me, the equivalent, from a century ago, of the artist colonies of Ditchling in England or Taos in the United States. In the morning, you work in the fields, in the afternoon, you learn to blacksmith, and in the evening, you write and tell stories around the hearth, all of it in good company.
I also imagine Kscope, in much more modern terms, as the English equivalent of Pixar, a place of toys, machines, spaces, treats, delights all available for human ingenuity and creativity to flow. Maybe a Steve Jobs (RIP) or a John Lassiter pops his head into your office every once in a while, giving you the thumbs up and the encouraging smile.
These, of course, are just the passing fancies of a middle-aged American lover of fine music, sitting in his office, recovering from grading 65 final papers.
Still, what I hear in SAND is not a part of my fancy at all, though it certainly tickles it. No, this is reality. And, a beautiful one at that. Even the cover of the album reveals much about Healy’s overall project. SAND, printed in a minimalist font across the front, hovers over a black hole and a swirling galaxy, itself rotating around the abyss. A star, powerful in and of itself and the single brightest element of the cover, keeps its distance from that which would devour it. Yet, more tensions.
I must admit, I hope that Healy does two things in the future, though with no rush.
First, I hope he puts his rather considerable writing skills to creating a concept album. I’m sensing a coherency of ideas running throughout SAND, but it would be wonderful for Healy to be explicit.
Second, I hope he rents an organic space and employs several string and woodwind players, and produces one of the most gorgeous albums imagined. Healy is a natural director and composer, but he does almost everything on SAND via various machines. And, what he does with those machines makes my heart flutter. But, I have to wonder what he would do with a string and woodwind ensemble, recording in an intimate setting. Imagining this, my heart goes beyond the flutters and begins to pound!
A Must Own
So, Progarchists, let me apologize. Had I heard this album prior to December 1, it would have made it—unquestionably—into my top of 2013. Why apologize—because, you need to buy this album. Yes, you need to spend more money. This is a must-own, an aural delight, a real piece of art for the headphones. We need to support the likes of Sam Healy as much as we can. He has earned it, and we owe it to the very ideal of beauty itself.
As a Catholic, I can state that my new year began on the first day of Advent. So, I’m declaring SAND the first truly great work of 2014. Yes, I know I’m cheating. But, I’m cheating for the best of reasons. Maybe, I’m just a Jesuit.
Now, please excuse me. Some suspicious architecture is calling me. . . .