erasing clouds

Liam Singer, The Empty Heart of the Chameleon

reviewed by dave heaton

Record-label press releases, filled with hyperbole as they always are, aren't usually the best place to look for descriptions of music, yet Tell-All Records is right in evoking composer John Adams and Elliott Smith's stripped-down songwriting to describe Liam Singer. His album The Empty Heart of the Chameleon switches from instrumental pieces of new classical music to up-close-and-personal pop songs with their sights set on our inner selves. Actually he mostly makes that distinction meaningless; the album has plenty of piano passages that are as emotionally forceful as the "pop songs", and there's several songs where the singing is very structured and mannered, and places where the music gains the dramatic scale of opera.

The songs on The Empty Heart of the Chameleon flow from one to the next as if they're telling one story. That story feels right outside the reach of my fingertips, or maybe it doesn't exist. "Your brothers have been drowned/your struggle is the last/I'm here to calm you down/the water's moving faster now," Singer sings near the album's beginning, as if his voice is that of an angel whose task is to comfort people through song, as they die. The theme of what happens to us when we die (as well as how the living effect each other, in life and afterwards) comes up time and again, perhaps most beautifully on the gorgeous cover of "When I Am Laid In Earth," from 17th Century British composer Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Another truly gorgeous moment comes towards the end of the album, with "One Day," an enigmatic love ballad with apocalyptic touches, sung by Singer as a fragile plea.

There's a truly stirring emotional sweep to The Empty Heart, in the instrumental pieces as much as in Singer's naked vocal performances. The melodies carry with them so much feeling, and they're often performed in a way that could send chills down the spine of a ghost. Singer plays piano in a graceful, sensitive way that can also be quite intense, while other instruments, including a theremin, occasionally add texture and mystery. The Empty Heart of the Chameleon is a truly unique album; I can't think of other musicians occupying the space between pop and classical that Liam Singer does, or at least I can't think of any who do it in such a thrilling way, managing to capture the moods of both musics while creating a new one. That musical personality is almost off-putting at first, because in this time of hyper-classification you're not sure quite where it fits. Yet in the end the music itself is so forceful, and the ideas and feelings carried by the songs so varied and complicated, that 'figuring it out' doesn't matter. You just let it carry you away, let the river take you where it will.


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