On Local Natives’ debut album, Gorilla Manor, Taylor Rice and Kelcey Ayer took turns handling lead vocal duties on almost every other song.
Rice’s songs were primarily concerned with nature and mysticism and self-identity and often sounded that way. They were vast or dark or impenetrable or solemn. They had titles like “Wide Eyes,” “Sun Hands,” “Shape Shifter,” “Who Knows Who Cares,” and “Stranger Things.” They had lyrics about “evil spirits” and “tree trunks” and “hands blessed to have touched the sun.” “Hallucinating souls” and “caves made of sheets.”
Ayer was in charge of the slightly lighter fare on the album. His songs were largely personal with direct lyrical references to traveling and family members and relationships. These songs were a bit more upbeat and approachable and contained many of the most memorable hooks on the album. Titles concerned everyday objects and themes like “Airplanes,” “World News,” and “Camera Talk” and spoke of grandfathers, and photo albums, and long distance relationships.
Where Rice sounded like a wide-eyed, innocent soul struggling to find a path through the forests of his mind, Ayer sounded relatively composed and confident, making his way though the “real world” with sentimental gestures and astute observations. The constant back and forth between these two realms gave the album the distinct feeling of being surreally existential and eloquently practical at the same time. Local Natives’ second album, Hummingbird, has the distinct feeling of being pensively existential and mournfully existential at the same time.
Ayer’s light-hearted touch is mostly gone here. Popular conjecture is that this was likely a result of the departure of the band’s bass player as well as the death of Ayer’s mother. Both make sense. Another significant factor in the darkening of the band’s mood and sound was probably the use of the National’s Aaron Dessner as producer on the album.
Dessner’s musical contributions to the National have become increasingly morose over the past few years. The energetic guitars and background yelping on 2005’s Alligator gave way to somber pianos and business-man balladry on 2007’s Boxer. On 2010’s High Violet, the more prolific of the Dessner brothers is credited with having written the music to all but two of the songs and the result was an album that sounded like a room full of ghosts drunk on red wine playing instruments in an abandoned mansion. His production on the more recent National albums, as well as last year’s excellent Sharon Van Etten album, Tramp, have found Dessner further developing these tendencies that he brings to the latest Local Natives album.
First, Dessner has developed a habit of castrating guitars in his production. They’re there, but they’re subtle. Usually accenting. Rarely leading the way. This is emblematic of his overall proclivity toward subtlety, which fans of nuance may appreciate but the same type of listener who may accuse the National of sounding a bit tame may find that criticism here. Second, Hummingbird is treated with the seriousness of a funeral. Gone are the folksy handclap-breakdowns, Talking Heads covers, and Ayer’s goofy references to encyclopedias, NPR, and Skyping with his girlfriend. Finally, as noted above, the stylistic shifting throughout the prior album has been ironed over to create a homogenous sound that is more representative of Rice’s cryptic spiritualism than Ayer’s prior upbeat numbers. It seems that since their last album Ayer has wandered out of reality and into Rice’s opaque shadow-land where, for him, the cloak of self-awareness manifests itself via much wistful, falsetto singing.
This darkening of atmosphere is apparent in the titles of the songs on the album, containing words like “heavy,” “wooly,” and two that begin with the word “black.”
Ayer begins the album on “You & I” sounding completely forlorn: “in all this light/ all I feel is dark/ had the sun without its warmth/ now I’m freezing.” He then picks up on “Heavy Feet” (where Dessner evidently taught drummer Matt Frazier how to drum exactly like Bryan Devendorf) and gets hung up on the idea of “outliving one’s body” before repeating the refrain: “after everything/ left in the sun/ shivering.” Things are definitely bleaker than they were when Ayer was joking around about fumbling with the radio on their last album.
From this point, Rice and Ayer trade back and forth on lead vocals for the rest of the album. Rice’s songs are still vague and questioning though, if anything, his inquisitiveness does appear to be aimed toward accomplishing some goal in the realm of reality. On “Ceilings” he sings “silver dreams bring me to you.” On “Breakers” it’s “breathing out/ hoping to breathe in/ I know nothing’s wrong but I’m not convinced.” On “Black Balloons,” which sounds like a sequel to “Wide Eyes,” he tells a third party “hold me down and bring me back up again/ until I can’t/ I can’t tell the difference.” On “Mt. Washington” it’s the repetition of the line “I don’t have to see you right now.”
Nothing is clear. Nothing is obvious. But it sounds like the story of a man struggling to harness his negative thoughts into positive actions for the benefit of both himself and another person.
Ayer’s trajectory, on the other hand, finds him attempting to fight off paranoia and insecurity to come to some peace with the misery of finality. On “Black Spot” he seems to be staring death in the face and states “if it comes to claim/ I won’t run.” Death seems to be the focus again on “Three Months” when Ayer sings: “I’ve go to go on now/ having thought this wasn’t your last year.” On “Wooly Mammoth” he seems to be looking for some light at the end of the tunnel: “there’s a sun rising/ steady now/ comfort me.”
This is all a build up to the album’s finest moment and, quite possibly, a song we may be able to use in the future to test for Cylons who don’t show extreme emotional reaction upon listening to it.
“Columbia” is Ayer’s ultimate statement about the death of his mother and gives one of the few direct storylines on the entire album: “The day after I had counted down all of your breaths/ down until there were none/ a hummingbird crashed right in front of me and I understood all you did for us.” It’s this imagery that gives the album its title and it’s an interesting scenario. It’s not until the day after the death, upon seeing a tiny, helpless bird also meet its demise that he suddenly begins questioning his own self-worth in light of everything his mother had done for him.
Throughout the rest of the song (while appropriately escalating in musical intensity), Ayer asks: “Am I giving enough? Am I giving enough? Am I?” It’s a brilliant bit of melody-writing with each successive “I” going further up the scale for emphasis and the implication is clearly meant to be: “compared to my mother.” It’s a heart-wrenching piece, especially toward the end when he begins singing “Patricia, every night I’ll ask myself” (Jesus…) and a really fitting culmination of the work done on the album. If we can’t take something fragile and inevitable and figure out a way to turn it into something hopeful and permanent, then what’s the point?