By Joseph McSpadden
Pushing themselves to the brink, Lowland Hum returns with Glyphonic, a song cycle that challenges the artist and listener alike to resist the gravitational pull of the material world and to choose to live with intent. As with their 2017 release, Thin, the duo of Daniel and Lauren Goans wrestle weighty questions with grace and aplomb. The title of the album is our first clue. Glyphs bring to mind the picture stories of ancient chroniclers. Phonic brings to mind sound, and so we have an album of picture-story songs. The Goans have compiled snapshots of the road they have travelled which offer insights into our own journeys. As usual, they make going deep look easy.
One of the first things apparent on Glyphonic is the Goans’ understanding that it is the silent spaces in a song that gives it its strength. Hence their commitment to champion quiet music. It is knowing what to leave out, coupled with knowing what to put into an arrangement, that seems to come naturally to them. It is an instinct that the best artists nurture and develop and one that makes their best work endure the test of time.
‘Salzburg Summer,’ Lowland Hum, from Glyphonic
The test of time, and what to do with it, is one of the central themes Lowland Hum has been wrestling with the last few years. Where Thin was about reconnection and rebirth, Glyphonic looks at consequences, and coming to terms with healthy limitations. On Thin, the married couple reflected on the exhaustion of the previous year, and sought to hunker down and reconnect. Glyphonic is a testament to the strength of their marriage and their art even as they put themselves through the ringer again, enduring a grueling schedule.
“We didn’t listen to our own warnings,” Lauren says.
Daniel chimes in. “To put it in context, we didn’t plan it as the craziest year ever. We got added to two months of shows with Penny & Sparrow that backed directly up to our first European tour, which was awesome, and a little over two months long. Because we’d never been to Europe I told the booking agent to book as many shows as he could to make the tour financially feasible. He proceeded to book 26 shows in 28 days.”
‘A Drive Through the Countryside,’ Lowland Hum, from Glyphonic
In order to keep their voices intact for the European tour they often spent days speaking as little as possible. Perhaps that served a purpose beyond vocal preservation, in the sense that they returned to the States with a harvest of words to draw from. The writing is as astute as ever, something we have come to expect from Lowland Hum. They possess a knack for keen observation, recording the most humble details of ordinary life.
The album begins with the song “Will You Be,” a reaffirmation of their need for one another and the security they find in the exclusivity of marriage. Set over a gentle yet insistent acoustic guitar the couple sing
Will you be my only?
Sea to sea, you’re my only
On land and ennui
One and only baby
Tearing down the road
We’re a ravenous cyclone
Eating everything that we can see
Maybe when we crash at home
We can sit outside under white sheets
Let our minds breathe,
Digest the feast,
It is the shortest track on the album yet sets the stage for the feast of images they returned home to share with us. The second track, “A Drive Through the Countryside,” is inspired by the beauty of the land around Charlottesville, Virginia. It is a mixed set of images, both gorgeous and grisly. “I was driving through the countryside one day, and it was so beautiful. And yet the thought that some of this land was made beautiful by slaves was very troubling to me,” Lauren says. The lyrics describe an emerald field, the din of cicadas, contrasted with the image of a body buried beneath the soil.
Picture the pose
Of the figure underneath
Shoulders and hips draped in green
The manor on high painted white
The glory of man and the model of life
The song closes with “The scent of sweetgrass and blood in the soil.” Lowland Hum introduces the theme of mortality, the specter of death in the midst of life. This is not to imply that Glyphonic is morbid; it is not. Rather, it celebrates life in the presence of death. The Goans achieve this as they usually do, by paying attention to detail and recording for us moments of ordinary grace.
“Salzburg Summer” documents the European tour with a commentary. “I was watching the crowds, and thinking of the body-image messages that girls are bombarded with,” Lauren says. “Equator Line” injects humor into the album, using the childhood memory of a kid who knew Karate and was rumored to own a real sword. The narrator of the song declares, “I have no doubt that his skills come in handy, but I get by fine with a jump rope and candy.” The humor blunts the possibility of danger implied by the martial arts disciple.
Mortality resurfaces on “Raise the Ring” with its reference to a grandfather’s funeral. The sound of a rifle, possibly a military salute, makes the narrator cry. The song is another example of the stellar quality of the writing on Glyphonic. As the Goans observe, “Time holds a knife to everything.”
“W/Sam” is a little bit of genius. The song celebrates spending time with a friend. The wisdom of the piece is in its simple recounting of events, without outside commentary or moralizing. By recording the details of the moment, the song emphasizes the importance of relationship, allowing the listener to feel it rather than have to be told.
‘Eye in the Sky,’ Lowland Hum, from Glyphonic
“Slow” is arguably the most moving track, which is saying a lot, considering the consistently sterling collection of tunes that is Glyphonic. Here we see the Goans face up to their limitations as they sing
I am slow
And it’s high time I am slowed down
To feel the cost of all my movement
There is a train of thought that says if you can sing about your trials then you have, in some way, gained a measure of victory over them. Glyphonic acknowledges mortality and limitation, even as it transcends both in song. The Goans make a remarkable team. One of their many gifts is their ability to sanctify the smallest moments in life. It requires an awareness so often dulled by the press of our daily routine. Lowland Hum beckons us to treasure those small moments and live with intent. Digest this feast.