Secret Meeting score: 88
by Joseph Purcell
Twenty-nine years after the release of their self-titled debut, Pennsylvania natives, The Innocence Mission, return with their tenth studio album, Sun On The Square and first through the Bella Union label. With label head and former Cocteau Twins member, Simon Raymonde, sighting them as one of his musical inspirations, the label feels a very natural home for the band.
Described in the Bella Union press release as a trio more akin to a beloved companion than a favourite band, they continue to release their brand of whimsical, gentle, fragile and moving folk pop. Following the release of their much sighted 1999 album, Birds of My Neighbourhood, the band – made up of Karen Peris’ Joanna Newsom evoking vocal talents, and husband Don who provides consciously crafted guitar and drums – they produce shimmering musical conceptions that have inspired some of contemporary alternative music’s finest, most notably Sufjan Stevens who explained, “I’m in awe of big songs, national anthems, rock opera, the Broadway musical. But what I always come back to, after the din and drum roll, is the small song that makes careful observations about everyday life. This is what makes the music by The Innocence Mission so moving and profound”.
Sun on The Square has the instant feel of The Innocence Mission at their very finest: stripped back, beautifully simple, elegant and enchanting. And this is all done by design- they have been producing recordings using similar formulas – such as recording in their dining room – for decades, and it isn’t a case of fashion or trend that has kept them relevant, but the sublime quality of their work.
The fluttering, delicately pitched opening track, Records from Your Room, starts the album in splendid fashion, over the soothing plucked acoustic guitar that perfectly complements Karen’s gentle singing. While lead single, Green Bus, is a fantastic winding wonderland of guitars, ukuleles and violins, fusing in union to create one of 2018’s finest tracks to date. It has that quintessential Innocence Mission sound, accompanied by the terrifically visual imagery of the lyrics, ‘And what could I bring you, now in the meantime? Fruit from the sunlight, quartz from the bay? And where will I find this, perfect and wondrous? I look into shops, I slip into rain, I cannot find a thing beautiful enough for you again’.
The waltzing carousel of sound, Look out from your Window, follows, with the crashing cymbals accentuating the serenading steps of Karen Peris’ unique vocal. Shadow of The Pines is undoubtedly a standout on an album of consistently excellent material, and it creates a perfectly shimmering mirage of thwacked strings accentuated by an accordion that intertwines to great effect with an elegant violin. It is clear to see the influence The Innocence Mission have had on Sufjan Stevens, as the songs glisten like a tranquil blue sea and very much hark back to the sounds on one of his standouts, Carrie & Lowell.
Star of Land and Sea, featuring a turn from husband Don Perris on lead vocal, is perfectly pitched, with a fragility reminiscent of Daniel Johnson’s masterpiece, True Love Will Find You In The End. A song beautifully woven together to encapsulate the brilliance of The Innocence Mission, evoking a Deserter’s Songs-era Mercury Rev. Followed by the hymn like, An Idea of Canoeing, which continues the impeccable standard throughout Sun on The Square.
Sun On the Square bubbles and simmers with ideas, and begs the question, how many bands make music this great three decades into their career? Karen Peris’ ability to question, create and explore with her dexterity and expansive written word and vocal is enchanting, and complimented beautifully by the musical soundscapes of her husband Don, and bassist Mike Bitts. The music is spellbindingly intricate, bursting with subtlety, yet spacious and vast, allowing the listener to drift and float into magical expanses of luscious scenery. Sun On The Square is a majestic album, and continues to explain why The Innocence Mission are so much more than just a band to many.