Releasing a sophomore album is never easy - first impressions are hard to overcome, and after establishing yourself as one sort of artist with your debut, deciding where to go next is a toss-up. More of the same, to develop your sound and hone the particular craft you’ve made yourself known for? Or a new direction, to establish versatility and depth in your musicianship? Who have you become since your last release, and what does that mean for your music?
Add to all that releasing an album after a six-year break from music that was both self-imposed and forced by a strange and life-altering wrist injury. For Wes Swing, a classically-trained cellist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, his challenge was just that. Swing had built his career in music, having arranged music for NPR and also composed for dance companies, besides performing himself throughout his years living and working in North Carolina and San Francisco.
Swing’s new release And the Heart, available as of June 2, is both a comeback and a sophomore album. He’s both entering back into the music industry and continuing a career that was so abruptly stopped, and he’s doing so after enduring a debilitating depression that took those six years to adjust to.
And the Heart takes a stark deviation from Swing’s debut Through a Fogged Glass. The latter is distinctly folk, albeit with rock influences - the marching drums on the percussion of the title track and clever cello loops keep it from being more than just Swing’s cello, some tasteful banjo, and haunting duets with singer Devon Sproule. The former, though, explores (as his website states) “the avant-garde of alternative folk and indie-pop.”
And that it does. Opening track “Missing Winter” starts with lovely arpeggios on the guitar and Swing’s clear, unwavering voice pleading simply “Sing with me, please… Stay with me, please.” As soon as he’s established that first sentimentality, though, a full backing of cello harmonies, echoing backing vocals and a deep, dark synth take the track out of the comfort of folk ballads and into something more akin to a Muse track, full of discomfort and tension.
“All Other Love” picks up where “Missing Winter” left off with eerie synths and guitar riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Twin Peaks episode. The cello is front and center, of course, but so are looped sequences with the synth stacked beautifully on top of each other to create a soundscape more like a forest than a crowded nightclub.
The opening guitar on “Here I Wait” sounds like it might be the first measures of an early 2000s radio rock single, like Cartel or Yellowcard were just waiting to come in with lines about love in cars and heartbreak in bedrooms. Swing makes the track his own, though, mixing the rock influences with distinctly folk melodies and lyrics that could be off any major indie rock album in the last five years. Shimmering synths and backing vocals (once again from Sproule) fill the sound out into a lonely ache that ends abruptly - a fitting choice for a song that seems just a half-step away from resolution, both emotionally and musically.
And the Heart does an impressive job of pushing into avant-garde without losing its center. Tracks like “Mirrors” brings the delicate harmonies of bands like Darlingside, while also filling out sound so much that influences like Coldplay and Radiohead are clear as well. The title track explores empty space and silence just as much as other tracks delve into the depth of full-band arrangements. Wavering strings and a plucked guitar line support Swing’s voice, louder and brought to the front more than in other tracks.
Considering that this is Swing’s most personal work, and one following a period of self-evaluation and rehabilitation, And the Heart is much more than just a clever pushing of folk boundaries. The whole thing screams of contemplation. It is looking for - and finding - beauty amongst darkness.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Missing Winter,” “Here I Wait,” “Mirrors,” “And the Heart,” “The Next Life”
Wes Swing began learning violin at just age 4, and has grown into a classically-trained cellist, acclaimed composer, and celebrated performer whose music has influences as far-flung as Radiohead to string quartets. His music, both recorded and live, makes use of looping his cello to create a rich, layered string sound. His second album, And the Heart, follows a six-year break from music caused initially by a wrist injury that prevented him from playing music at all. He's now recovered and, after some mental and physical rehabilitation, has returned to the scene that defined his identity for so long.