As humans, a sense of home often guides our lives — which homes we seek and which we run away from, where we make homes and what or who comes to constitute our notions of home. A home can come in all shapes and sizes and need not necessarily even assume a physical form.
For musical and theatrical artist Rinde Eckert, home is his music. At least, his newest album The Natural World is, in Eckert’s own words, “as close to home as I’ve ever gotten.” Though this may be home for Eckert, that doesn’t necessarily deem it applicable to its listeners. The LP showcases the many creative virtues of the artist — a self-proclaimed “writer, composer, librettist, musician, performer and director” (try saying that five times quickly) — but flounders in an excess of ambiguity, making it at times more vexing than enlightening.
Of course, music need not explain itself nor must it spell itself out. Part of what masterful music does consists of resonating with listeners precisely because it offers a carefully curated image or feeling yet leaves it to the listener to fill in the specifics and make the art applicable to them personally (think late 1960s Beatles hits).
The Natural World falls short in offering a solid enough framework on which to rest the obscurities of his songs. Eckert leans upon a performative element that is simply not there. In this case, this missing link seems to be a plot. Throughout the album, the musician assumes an amalgam of personas, from gentle lover to passionate choir singer to spiritual leader. He does so seamlessly and with great precision, which makes sense considering Eckert’s extensive background in musically accompanied theater (what he calls “Opera / New Music Theatre”) both off and onstage. This has presumably rendered him accustomed to utilizing the framework of a plot to support the progression of his composition. In The Natural World, the plot in question may be Eckert’s own life, but the audience doesn’t necessarily know this.
In “Bar Fight” (which opens with a chord progression somehow reminiscent of that of “Despacito”), Eckert takes on a mild vocal drawl to accompany his precise plucking and screeching wind instrument. Punctuated by various “whoop!’s” and “hee!’s,” the song’s protagonist (maybe Eckert, maybe not) laments his rocky life and turns to alcohol to “stop the pain.” The piece may reflect some rough-riding, rowdy portion of Eckert’s life or perhaps simply the strains of daily living. Nonetheless, sandwiched between the clean falsettos and devotional intonations of “Dry Land” and “Prayer,” “Bar Fight” comes off as more disruptive than skillful.
That’s not to say that The Natural World falls flat on all counts. A few songs approach a feeling of home fairly well. Though nestled unassumingly as the fourth-to-last track on the album, “Catbird” (which is, indeed, an actual type of bird) shines in its Cat Stevens-esque folksy tones and airy gentle contemplation. Here, the heart of what it seems Eckert is trying to say throughout the whole LP emerges: An observation and acceptance of the passage of time. “We heard the catbird calling us, as if to say, as if to say, nothing is ours to keep. Everything is borrowed, every love and sorrow,” Eckert sings in his magnificent and deeply textured voice.
Such a message seems to be the keystone of this home Eckert has built for himself. “I don’t know why we’re here under the stars. Why there is hope or fear under the stars … Then I hear the catbird sing his hundred different songs, singing for all he’s worth and right where he belongs. He’s right where he belongs,” the musician continues, accompanied by the gentle lilt of a flute. The Natural World may not have hit its mark and may not resonate as an album with all listeners. But Eckert? Well, if for him this album is home, then he’s right where he belongs.
Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].