This winter has had its share of exquisite album releases from talented young artists. “Heart Murmurs” from Minnesota based Jeremy Messersmith is certainly one of the finest. His style has been termed indie pop, but it’s distressing that the pop term is there. This sort of implies a similarity to other commonly heard, formulaic songs that muck up the radio dials. There is no such similarity, and this talented artist simply has a style with an easy appeal, but this does not indicate a lack of quality. It’s sort of a vanilla flavor, but one that blindfolded vanilla bean goddess pickers harvested at the peak of perfection with silkened hands, then turned into delicious songs. Okay, that was over the top. I just can’t emphasize enough that despite the broad likability inherent to these songs, there is rich song-writing and a new form of pop going on. It’s infused heavily with strings and creative, layered lyrics.
I would probably not have been fortunate enough to have come across Messersmith’s work if he hadn’t opened up for Neko Case last fall. He put on a diligent, self-effacing show that made me want to hear more of his work. I misunderstood some of the lyrics in that live venue, and was even more impressed when I took the time to listen to the studio versions. My teenage daughter, who saw the show, is now quite a fan, and she went into that concert with a firm determination not to like any of it. She stands by her dislike of Neko Case. I made no headway there.
Messersmith has been doing something of theme albums lately. “Heart Murmurs” being all love(ish) songs. But again, there’s a big caveat. These are not typical, and will not leave you spitting out saccharine (or even stevia/ricin) after listening. He goes with the broad theme of love songs, or perhaps it is better to say emanations from the heart, be it a full hardy beat or a wrong ass fibrillation. And he assumes a new persona for each work. Vastly different situations and inclinations, earnest lyrics from wildly different sources. Messersmith taught song-writing for three years at a St. Paul school, and he is a master at the art. “Heart Murmurs” follows the album “The Reluctant Graveyard”, all songs with a theme of death. Sounds awful, huh? But, no—again, he turns it around, and it is more of a celebration of what you should do with this life. You are left with sort of a Day of the Dead vibe. It’s a compelling way to join songs in this manner, giving a cohesion and depth to the subject. In this same manner, “Heart Murmurs” goes beyond what love songs generally encompass, and open up into variations on love, the same core, but each with distinctly different application.
The album begins with the deceptively straight-forward song “It’s Only Dancing”. The approachable sound is there, and on the surface it is simply about a long-standing, unrequited love between friends, symbolized by dancing over the years. But it is a love never voiced out loud and held in check with affable friendship. The sad flow continues and builds to the friend wryly watching his beloved dance with another, the one she married. His voice enlarges to “I want to scream, I want to burst, I want to blame the whole damn universe, but the same three words I whisper to myself………It’s only dancing”. Those three words weren’t I love you, but a refrain to the dismissive. After all, maybe it’s all only dancing. But can’t that be quite a lot? A little more packed in this song than is immediately evident.
But I told you that he assumes wildly different personas with these songs. The most noticeable of this would be the song “Steve”, a sparse, sweet ballad that turns a little off from where tunes like this usually go. The singer, he tries to comfort his best friend Steve who just had a woman “hurt him so bad he wanted to die”, but he tells him: “Steve, I’m your best friend; there’s nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I suppose this is a gentle song of coming out, but it is unclear if Steve is receptive; there’s no indication how this plays out. I really hope it went well in make believe lyric world, or he just made Steve’s day get much worse. The whole thing is just irrepressibly kind and earnest. A sparkling piano playing under the moonlight they walk in. The cello calls hopefully. I truly love this song. And of course it’s not a guess to use if you ever play ipod shuffle with the Westboro Baptists. Which coincidentally is on my not-to-do list. They wouldn’t have “Steve” on a playlist.
Messersmith has a tentative humor that is absolutely endearing. Another personality he assumes is this older guy, who says he’s not much to look at: “I guess the years have been a little rough.” But the man has an agenda……….. he wants to be your one night stand. The lyrics are softly amusing; this guy’s very diminished expectations are sweetly voiced. His “plans” include a box of wine. He says “I’m just a guy with a mini-van, I wanna be your one-night stand.” Gentle humor that, while silly, isn’t truly mocking anyone—just sort of exploring the world of self-effacement. Here he performs it outside on what looks like a road. The woman interviewing him is kind of awful—in an awkward manner, she keeps saying “right on”, but it’s a nice clip, despite her: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEB0XjHHfqE
A stand-out of the album is “Ghost”. This song has a powerful momentum, wheels turning as the singer bounds through the Midwest, returning to places (and people, of course) he swore never to return to, but he is there only as a pass-through. You get the sense he has left smoldering piles of rubble. The self-destructive ways voiced: “If there’s a line, I’ll cross it. No lesson did I learn. Even if I’m standing on it, no bridge that I won’t burn.” But the small nod to hope “One more hour to Wichita. Sunlight……..never felt so kind.” Bounding drums frame this extremely well-constructed song, taking it into a lush territory. But the song is heard here with nothing but acoustic guitar, and holds up well in that form: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azbUlPz-fxM. It is certainly worth listening to the studio version, however. This is the song to listen to first, I would say. The gateway. Then hopefully you will find the pleasure in the rest and even head backwards to that mentioned delightful death album.
The track “Bubblin” might be the one that I find the most tragic and beautiful. A smooth, stringed start careens to a robust, layered end. It is a song about trepidation, not really love. Coming back down to the strings in the end, all the sum total of burgeoning anxiety and the obliteration from that cascade. The liquid undertones match the flow of the lyrics well. This is a song not like the others that have strong (even if misguided) emotions–it’s more about failure and fear and not coming back from that ever.
And the last song of the album that ties it all up in a nice bow……. I think it comes from the rich history that is Amish lullabies. This is “Someday, Someone”. Okay, I made that up about the Amish lullabies. You simply have to listen, and listen all the way to the end (it’s only something like 2 minutes). Lots of low quality, rogue clips on you-tube, which I think fit this song. Best ending line ever, but I won’t put it here. I like to think someone out there will get inspired by this song and serenade someone with it, Steve …..perchance? It will either go very well or will bring on a call to the police. Like all great moments, I guess. This one belongs on a list of slightly deranged love songs that would have to include Flight of the Conchords “If You’re Into It”. As far as I know, this compilation has not been put together. But if anyone out there reading has free time, they should get on it. But before starting that project, look into this fairly unknown, newly sparkling treasure: “Heart Murmurs”.
Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org