CD Review: The Heavy Blinkers “Health”
Patience, persistence, and faith are undoubtedly three of the most essential virtues for any artist chasing a profound breakthrough. Few musical achievements released this year have so divinely discovered the magic that can result when an artist cultivates the seed of an idea and pushes full steam ahead, through hell or turbulent waters, quite like the The Heavy Blinkers’ Health.
Arriving in its finished form nearly a full decade after the Halifax outfit’s previous, celebrated effort, 2004’s The Night and I Are Still So Young, found significant acclaim (Rolling Stone praised the album’s “pure genius arrangements” and called it a “tour-de-force of unequalled pop excellence”), Heavy Blinkers mastermind and lone remaining original member Jason Michael MacIsaac tirelessly chased the key to unlocking the intricate compositions of Health longer than the presumable majority of his most faithful peers would have done. It’s an exquisite musical work that began in 2006 with the union of 31 Halifax musicians joining as a chorus for a tune that would ultimately become the nucleus of Health. That chorus’ effort was “As Long As You Have Your Health,” the album’s lead track and introductory theme. As his original band mates would go on to devote more time to other blossoming projects, MacIsaac wasn’t immediately aware the choral composition would go on to set the scene for perhaps The Heavy Blinkers’ finest hour.
In the years that followed, MacIsaac recruited an orchestral army to bring to life the 16 songs of Health, a 21st Century epic and concept album that is dominated by wartime fables, tragic demises, and the overarching theme of love and distance. It’s not as overt with its subjects and themes as The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love or Sufjan Stevens’ two virtuosic entries (Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Come on Feel the Illinoise, respectively) into his now-latent “50 States” project, but those are telling touchstones as to the scope of MacIsaac’s lens with Health and the breathtaking world he paints for his listeners.
The dazzling nature of Health makes it a hopeless effort to attempt to translate any sort of highlight reel culled from dynamic compositions or elegant vocal acrobatics. (For those seeking more telling details about the grandeur and genesis of each song, I’ll point you in the direction of Herohill’s interview with MacIssac where he discusses Health on a song-by-song basis.) Arranged as a musical rooted in indie-leaning orchestral-pop, each offering is a knockout that serves as a tapestry woven into a voluminous work capable of grabbing you by the heartstrings on first listen while built for the long haul. There is such obvious timelessness pouring from every nook and cranny of these songs that it takes little effort for listeners to leap from their bustling 21st Century worldview into a place and time where the album’s picturesque cover art (of a lone sailor left-handed-saluting a ship barreling against choppy seas in the snow-drenched night) becomes an immediate reality.
MacIsaac spearheaded the organization of Health in terms of lyrics and arrangements (he also works with the acclaimed Zuppa Theatre troupe and composes scores for film and television). Laying the musical foundation while playing piano, organ, guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, accordion, harmonica, omnichord, and percussion, MacIsaac tapped bassist Adam Fine, harpist Ellen Gibling, and multi-instrumentalist David Christensen to round out the instrumental core of The Heavy Blinkers for the record. For vocal duties, Juno Award-nominated singer-songwriter Jenn Grant, Melanie Stone and Stewart Legere shine, and their performances are so consistently breathtaking and heartfelt that it takes conscious effort to remember they are channeling the emotions of MacIsaac’s lines and didn’t write their own material. Additionally, longtime MasIsaac favorite Sondre Lerche takes the lead on the duet “It Sounds Better Than It Sounds,” and Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas lends his voice to “I Should Be Sleeping.”
For those who seek it out, Health is a lush, intricate album that will not only endure, but will age gracefully. That grace is richly penned into its DNA. From the “My Darling Clementine” homage of war-stricken beauty “Anna Karina, I Was Wrong” to the Serge Gainsbourg-indebted French waltz of “Mes Craintes Oubliées” to the Polyphonic Spree-esque optimism of “Call It A Day,” The Heavy Blinkers have generously bestowed a cornucopia of stunning arrangements and visceral storytelling (“When You Go,” “Someone Died At The Ice Capades,” “God Bless Hazel,” and the clever “Little Drummer Boy” reinvention of “Silence Your Drum”) that are both relatable and purely awe-inspiring.
The impressive achievement of Health is perhaps well-summarized with a nod to old Hollywood. In a modern age comprised of films boasting artistic merit that clamors for Oscar glory, it’s not hard to see how heavily the token summer blockbusters loom over the world of cinema. Every year, there are Academy Award contenders that are shoo-ins for Oscar contention simply because they are period pieces that elicit genuine emotion from the audience. MacIsaac seems to have rooted Health in many of the same desires as an Oscar-winning director like Tom Hooper did with certain Academy Award nominees like The King’s Speech or Les Misérables, but MacIsaac’s Heavy Blinkers may have pulled off a feat thatcould go on transcend period piece greatness and strive for the realm of timelessness.
There may be other records this year that can put a The King’s Speech sort of period spell over listeners, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else setting their musical sights on the everlasting air of Casablanca or the best of Capra in quite the same manner The Heavy Blinkers have done and achieved with Health.
*This review was first posted on Division St. Harmony on August 6, 2013.
Listen/Download: “Perfect Tourists”
Listen: “I Should Be Sleeping”
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
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