Back between 2008 and 2010, the coolest thing a musician could be was a dude in the woods with an acoustic guitar who just got dumped. It was a time when quiet became the new heavy. The leaders of flannel-clad revolutionaries were acts like Bon Iver, The Fleet Foxes, and The Antlers, and behind them were legions of shaggy folksters trying to outdo (or out-sad?) each other for a spot in the pantheon of musical winter.
Then there was Postdata, the side project of Wintersleeps Pul Murphy, whose self-titled LP walked the line between the oldest Maritime folk and the newest electronic and ambient music. As time passes, it stands farther and farther above trends to distinguish itself as one of the best albums of that whole three-year stretch. That's because its real strength is in its bare bones songwriting, even if listeners are drawn at first to the heavy (and excellent, mind you) production.
The album's nine tracks sound like they've always been around waiting for someone to sing them, like classic, timeless folk songs. There's the story of "Tobias Grey," a man whose life is a series of personal losses, where "Sometimes the weather don't change, it just stays in the very same place." There's "The Coroner," a macabre but yearning love song where Murphy sings, "I would give my hands, my hair, my skin, the lining in my stomach." Both sound like they could be bar songs or dirges depending on the mood.
Then there's the album's highlight, "Paranoid Clusters," a song so short and perfect that it's almost easy to miss. Across a meagre two-and-a half minutes, it takes us from the "big black belly of the universe," down to the everyday things that make life stupid and wonderful at the same time: "shrapnel, prophylactics, expired antibiotics, empty spray cans, burned out rockets, heaps of soil and stench and garbage, centuries accumulative, death defiant, burning bright, beneath the paranoid cluster of falling stars." The final chorus crescendos high into the heavens, and then just like that, it burns out. It's this sense of darkness set eternal recurrence that makes the album so fascinating, and so oddly calming.
The quiet, folksy, storytelling element of the album comes in perfect harmony with its modern production, as acoustic instruments are modified, laden with effects, and stretched into new, beautiful sounds. It stands right in the sweet spot between the past and the future, offering something familiar and excitingly, even frighteningly new. So many artists try to push musical boundaries by coming up with new sounds in the studio, but what Murphy does here is show that the real innovation comes with the skeleton of the songs themselves. After that, the flourishes come naturally.
There hasn't been a second Postdata album, and there may never be one. It's sad to think there might be more music like this sitting in the big, black belly of Murphy's mind, and it might never make its way out. But at least we have these nine songs, which only seem to glow brighter with time.
Gregory Bouchard is a writer living in Toronto - @gregorybouchard