Despite starting off as a temporary replacement for Neko Case, Kathryn Calder has become something of an unsung spirit of The New Pornographers. She crackles with youth and energy onstage behind her keyboard. Out of all the diverse members of the Canadian supergroup, she might be the one that most embodies the words “power pop,” at least when performing live.
So, it’s always been a welcome surprise that Calder’s solo material is so delicate and contemplative. Then again, it also makes complete sense given what she’s had to deal with over the past few years. Her 2010 debut, Are You My Mother?, got its namesake not only from the famed children’s book, but from Calder’s own mother, Lynn, who died of ALS during recording. It was a decidedly minimal, never morbid affair that saw the musician looking back on her relationship with Lynn over gentle instrumentation. Sylvan guitar, warm nature sounds, and low piano plunking all became tools for dealing with loss and truthfully remembering the past. 2011’s Bright and Vivid was equally reflective, albeit in a less direct manner, expanding Calder’s musicality into a larger emphasis on synths.
Her self-titled album continues Bright and Vivid’s progression towards more electronic arrangements while revisiting the poignant lyricism of Are You My Mother?. Since that first record, Calder’s father also passed away, meaning that death is probably on her mind more than ever. She handles the topic with grace rather than straight grief, opting to pen love songs — love for her family, love for her husband, love for the memories of those who are gone — that also explore the confusion of losing someone. “Come show me something I can’t see,” she pleads with an unseen figure on opener “Slow Burning”, her voice constantly fading away over a pulse of synth washes and imagery of nightmares becoming real. It’s effectively abstract, rooted in mood more than concrete verses and choruses.
These abstractions best suit the ponderous subject matter of Kathryn Calder. This isn’t an album with answers to any of life’s maddeningly big questions, and the staggered instrumentation and harmonies of “Beach” — the thing just keeps building, then falling back down — find an appropriately obtuse pocket for such meditative lyrics to live in. “When You See My Blood” stacks up a more ominous but equally mutative soundscape rife with sitar and watery drums that eventually explode into distortion. But many of the other tracks, including “Blue Skies” and “Armour”, are more musically straightforward, never conveying that same sense of mystery. While Kathryn Calder certainly deserves credit for its open mind and surrealism, sometimes the bigger topics get lost in the smallness of the songs.
Essential Tracks: “Slow Burning”, “Beach”, and “When You See My Blood”