EDITOR’S NOTE: As the end of the year approaches, we’re taking a look back at albums we weren’t able to review when they first came out. Cerulean was released in June via Soundly Music.
Though what Ken Yates was going through while writing his fourth album, Cerulean, may have been deeply personal, he ended up capturing universal truths with pinpoint precision. Grieving the loss of his mother plus the loneliness of a global lockdown navigate Cerulean through its quiet darkness, and an eventual calm resolve. Depression, numbness, agoraphobia, and anxiety have never sounded so dreamy as through Yates’ soft, hazy lens. With harmonies from artists like Katie Pruitt and Kathleen Edwards, Yates uses the gentle brush of his vocals to build serene layers of sound, whether on his solemn, introspective tunes or his driving, melodic ones.
Yates’ steady hand in singing about the difficulties of being alive makes Cerulean a kind of cocoon in which we can safely rest our own restless minds. His hushed acoustic guitar and just-minimal-enough arrangements ground songs that can sometimes hit you right in the emotional gut. “Small Doses” taps into that aching desire to be liked, and the way it exhausts you until you need a vacation from yourself. “Grocery Store” finds Yates holing up inside, obsessing about all the things that could be and suppressing his impulses just enough to cope. It plays out like the prettiest version of a middle-of-the-night panic spiral, a theme Yates also explores on standouts like “Didn’t Mean to Wake You Up” and “Best of the Broken Things.”
A sliver of light comes through on momentary flashes of clarity “Good Things” and “Cerulean,” as Yates remembers there’s some beauty in the world. Then there are the unexpectedly spirited earworms of sadness and looming dream, “Honest Light” and “The Big One,” urging acceptance of the discomfort and demanding repeat listens.
Meditation, self-medicating, leaving the city for the country, therapy — Yates leaves no stone unturned in his quest for a less bitter existence. Cerulean is a painstakingly truthful exploration of depression’s quiet, insidious toll, and Yates’ bare-faced songwriting is stunning in its candidness and relatability. He is never overly pessimistic or hopeful, just somewhere in the middle, unsure of how to be in such a brutal world. If you’ve ever felt even an ounce of something akin to this, Yates’ album will be a reprieve from the swirling, dark noise. It’s a bit of recognition that you aren’t alone, which can, maybe, be enough.