I have been a fan of The Innocence Mission since the early 1990s. I have most of their CDs and love Glow, My Room in the Trees, and Now the Day is Over, so when I heard that their new album, Sun on the Square, was coming out in June on the Badman Recording Company via my favourite label, Bella Union, the excitement started to build.
The band hails from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has been recording since their self-titled debut in 1989. Their music is the calm, uncategorisable type that few bands make any more. Yes, you could call it poetic soft rock, but that would miss the deep affection that lead singer Karen Peris brings to every song she sings. Karen sang on The Places We’ve Been from Lost Horizons’ 2017 album Ojalá and is one of my favourite singers of all time. Like Dolores O’Riordan, her voice stands out in a crowd, not because of its boisterous power, but rather the soft affection and deeply emotional lyrics she delivers. They stand tall for a world bruised by political strife.
I hoped that this new album would go in the direction of Glow, but after listening to Sun on the Square completely I now know why that would not have worked. Sun on the Square captures some of those moments of optimism that I do believe are coming, but first we must capture where we stand today, and the band has done that here. Glow was a happy, blissful, reflection of a time when I think the world was good. We’re not back there yet. Since the election of 2016, the United States and the world have been anything but blissful… or happy for that matter. So, Sun on the Square reflects that feeling of loss and confusion.
The album opens with the wonderful Records from your Room, reminiscing about playing vinyl albums in your own space as The Innocence Mission shine beautiful acoustic light on that glorious past when we had the time to listen to full albums in all their clarity. Karen sings, “Is there a word for this time, the changes we find, the music that blooms now out of your room, the kindness of strangers…”. The acoustic guitar and Karen’s voice is all you hear, with a melancholic wide eyed innocence to the vocals, not soundscape supported as Glow. A tempered happiness and reflection supported at times with a minimum of piano keys. A jarring opening for someone who innocently expected another Glow.
Green Bus is a wonderful song for which Karen created artwork, along with the video above. Another powerful statement as Karen sings, “If I could speak, if I could be as I would like to be now – I look into shops, I slip into rain”. More melancholy; wanting to be joyous but realising that the world has changed. The supporting orchestration of sitting bass, stringed instruments and acoustic guitar surround Peris’ vocals, as eerie ringing keyboards can be heard in the distance. A slow, plodding trip through the rain; not the glorious spirit of Bright as Yellow or Brave, reflective of the times, or the season in which it was written. Plenty of nylon string guitar, ukulele, and waves of violin.
Next up is Look out from Your Window, which is one of the more inspired tracks on the album, Peris singing, “All I cannot say I hope you know. All you cannot say I hope I can hear”. A song full of longing and beautiful baritone acoustic guitar, pump organ, tremolo, upright bass and viola from Anna Peris, Karen’s daughter. I’m feeling the warmth of a fire with some early Fleet Foxes as I listen to this track.
Shadow of the Pines may be my favourite track on the album and it comes early. I have probably listened to the full album only six or seven times; it’s a “grower”, not as easy as Glow to instantly love, but of course, you can’t keep making Glow. Peris sings, “Leaving the shadow of the pines, some lost things I hope to find again”, all set to piano, accordion, organ, harmonica, soft drums, bass, and more viola. Yes, we all hope to find lost things again.
Buildings in Flower opens like a cool jazz song, and could have fit well on the quieter parts of Glow. Acoustic guitar, bells, organ, Melodica and bass create a solid soundscape as Peris’ voice rises above; “All the leafiness of a thousand miles, is felt in the heart. A change that has started. The packing of things, the loading of cars, the farther and farther darkening dark”.
The title track was inspired by Brazilian bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto (who Karen uncannily resembles). Karen speaks of her admiration “for someone going out into the world bravely and in kindness – the possibility for one person to be a light in the world. That love will prevail over fear”. That is Karen Peris in every song that I have heard. Another of my early favourites, Peris sings, “Let it ring out into the air – let there be more kindness in the world”. More sun on the square. Amen.
Every season has its wonder, and the music of The Innocence Mission can capture the spirit and essence of all these seasonal moods so well. Light of Winter is for that time when we lose the light of the sun the most. However, snow brings the brightness we crave. Karen obviously loves snow, she has written many songs about the emotions surrounding it and this is another wonderful tribute that captures the stillness and solemnity of the season.
Star of Land and Sea is written and sung by Karen’s husband Don Peris. It reminds me of some of Lindsey Buckingham’s quieter songs, the baritone and acoustic guitars warmly capturing the spirit of the cry for peace and tranquillity; “Be a light to all, you shine into darker lands, you shine, a friend to friendless men, you shine”.
Another thing that is wonderful about The Innocence Mission is the song titles. An Idea of Canoeing – what more can you say about that title. Perfect. Peris sings, “Circles outreaching and growing wide, endlessly outreaching, into the hour, the idea of this, water in flower”.
Galvanic is the album closer, and a song we have been waiting for, with the best lyrics on the album, so please indulge me; “Days we will see. The radiant greens and the long strides. Galvanic lights over us all these miles. I believe we’re going to see, things will come right this time… And we will see, and leap to our feet, in songs of flights, and mark it down: the healing has now been authorized”. Amen again.
This album is full of references to change, loss, or reminiscence of the past. It is a soft, acoustic album reflecting the change of seasons and moods of the world. I love the album in all its integrity and hope for the future. Please pick this album up and join in the walk back to normalcy. If you have time, pick up some of their other albums, or at least songs like their covers of Edelweiss and Over the Rainbow, and please listen to My Room in the Trees with the songs God is Love and Spring.
01. Records From Your Room (2:47)
02. Green Bus (4:29)
03. Look Out From Your Window (3:21)
04. Shadow Of The Pines (4:01)
05. Buildings In Flower (3:43)
06. Sun On The Square (3:28)
07. Light Of Winter (3:53)
08. Star Of Land And Sea (3:09)
09. An Idea Of Canoeing (2:58)
10. Galvanic (2:38)
Total Time – 34:27
Karen Peris – Guitar, Piano, Pump Organ, Accordion, Lead Vocals
Don Peris – Guitars, Drums, Vocals
Mike Bitts – Upright Bass