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"I know the rain like the clouds know the sky
I speak to birds and tell them where to fly
I sing the songs that you hear on the breeze
I write the names of the rocks and the trees."
When L.A.-based Indie Folk-Rock outfit Lord Huron released their debut album Lonesome Dreams in 2012, the critics immediately drew comparisons to Fleet Foxes –- and with good reason. Lord Huron explored the same aesthetic territory as Fleet Foxes –- a ramshackle, rustic, rural sound –- even if Lonesome Dreams didn’t quite reach the same heights as Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut album (2008’s Fleet Foxes) and 2011’s sophomore album Helplessness Blues. But with their second album, Strange Trails, Lord Huron have raised the stakes and are now finding themselves on an entirely different level: the songwriting –- the melodies, their structures and arrangements –- is significantly superior to Lonesome Dreams, much more ambitious, distinguished and memorable, and the four-piece’s musicianship is more incisive and self-assured.
In conjunction with their first full-length release, Lonesome Dreams, Lord Huron shot a series of sun-faded, sepia-tinted retro music videos (Time To Run, She Lit A Fire, Lonesome Dreams) –- very much in the style of ‘70s cinematography –- that testified to a nostalgic appreciation for old-fashioned narratives. The band viewed Lonesome Dreams as “a series of old adventure tales”. Frontman/main songwriter Ben Schneider: “…and we wanted the videos to kind of reflect that and have that same feel and style”. As suggested by Strange Trails’ evocative album artwork, which looks like a scene out of a 1940s Western movie, Lord Huron still revere this retrospective approach to cinematic songwriting and storytelling.
Strange Trails’ album cover depicts a man gazing into the woods, as if he’s contemplating which road to take on a solitary journey to…enlightenment, self-discovery, revelations? Schneider: “There’s always been two parts to my nature. I’m really attached to my family and my friends. But I also like to spend time on my own. I’ve always been the kind of guy, who likes to be by myself a lot of the time.” Strange Trails is music for people who contemplate life in solitude, mortality, life after death, and dream of simpler times, better days, when man was in touch with nature and had a deeper understanding of spirituality and the beauty of the natural world. And true to the band’s name -- which was inspired by Lake Huron, where Schneider spend evenings playing music around the campfire as a youngster -- the album is littered with references to nature: “lit by the moon”, “through the sand”, “the sun”, “the desert”, “rain”, “mountain”, “dancing in the wind”, “beyond the clouds”, “sky”, “birds”, “breeze”, “rocks”, “trees”.
But these narratives aren't necessarily overt homages to the healing powers of nature (with, perhaps, the exception of the captivating La Belle Fleur Sauvage). Strange Trails takes Lord Huron and the listener to some spooky, dark places en route. Schneider’s cryptic, enigmatic lyrics were influenced by the vintage sci-fi and horror comics that he read on the road while touring the album Lonesome Dreams (Alan Moore’s "Swamp Thing"; and the works of Charles Burns, e.g. his graphic novel "Black Hole"). Ben Schneider: "I guess Strange Trails is kind of about not being afraid to confront sort of the dark side of life...". A man looks death in the eye in the eerie Dead Man's Hand, as a living corpse refuses to be buried (“I laid him down in a grave in the sand / And he grabbed my arm with his dead man's hand / He said: "I know I'm dead, but I don't wanna lie / In a grave out here where the carrions cry…/ So lift me up out of here, my friend / And I'll wander the night 'til the ages end."). Are they perhaps one and the same man facing his fear of death, his own mortality? Is he looking down at himself, as his soul leaves his body? Likewise, the protagonist of The World Ender is a vengeful, hell-raising spirit or living dead hell-bent on avenging the murders of his loved ones, his wife and daughter ("I'm the World Ender, baby, and I'm back from the grave / They can run for their lives, but they cannot be saved / I'm the World Ender, baby, and I'm coming for them / They put me in the ground, but I'm back from the dead") -- a tale of righteous anger and hate that's both morbid and life-affirming at one and the same time.
From start to finish, Strange Trails is a surrealistic journey: The lyrics often read like a hallucinatory trip, and the lines between reality, imagery, nightmares, religious conviction, and superstition, are constantly blurred. If Strange Trails is a metaphor for confronting the dark side of life, its trials and tribulations, the mysterious Meet Me In The Woods might possibly be about growing up, the stage in your life when you realize that you're no longer a child and that childhood was pure bliss compared to adulthood: “There ain't language for the things I've seen / And the truth is stranger than my own worst dreams…/ Say goodbye to who I was / I ain't never been away so long / Don't look back, them days are gone.” Then again, it might be about something completely different -- like, of all things, a traumatizing alien encounter. In Until The Night Turns, an otherworldly being proclaims the end-times (“I had a visitor come from the great beyond / Telling me our time in the world is done / And to watch for a sign in the midnight sky”), and Frozen Pines seems to tell a tale of alien abduction ("And I look up to the sky, and I know you're still alive.../ On the night you disappeared, I wish I had seen it clear / But a strange light in the sky was shining right into my eyes").
All of this may sound very dark, gloomy and claustrophobic, but the uplifting, melodic music -- chiming, reverb-drenched electric guitars, energetic Indie Folk-infused Rock, frantic Rockabilly rhytms, handclaps, Country-ish twang -- makes for a liberating counterpoint. Even the bleakly-titled The Yawning Grave, with its slow, softly lilting melody and poetic words, exudes a strangely comforting atmosphere. Strange Trails is an adventurous, deeply engrossing set of songs, an album for the ages. It will be very interesting to join Lord Huron on the band's continued journey. May there be more strange trails to follow.