Tony Dekker, lead singer and songwriter for Great Lake Swimmers, has long been a master of musical introspection. The band’s previous albums have explored the interior depths with wit and wisdom; their latest project, “The Waves, The Wake,” steps even more deeply into the intricacies of the soul and the heart.
For this album, Dekker chose to write without his mainstay acoustic guitar. The result is a soundscape that’s remarkably minimalist but at the same time expansive – the band has added a variety of other sounds to their sonic palette, including strings, congas, marimba, harp, and pipe organ. (Recording the album in London’s historic Bishop Cronyn Memorial Church certainly facilitated that last addition.)
So what does this mean for Great Lake Swimmers this time around? In listening through the album, it seems to me that removing his safety net of a guitar has opened up a new window into Tony Dekker’s vulnerability even more than on previous projects… his lyrics are perhaps a touch less mysterious, his vocals rawer than I’ve previously heard. By taking the risk of writing in a different way, he has opened up his songwriting to a new immediacy that enhances what already was a gorgeous hand with a song.
And in this day and age, goodness knows that depth and vulnerability, a willingness to explore our deepest selves and acknowledge their frailty, are critical. One song on the album that especially illustrates this for me is “The Real Work,” as excellent a sermon on going deeper into the spiritual life as any I heard in divinity school:
“And the real work is to be it, believe it
With each new set of eyes and the visions they provide
Be the taste, the warmth, the measure and the glow
By embracing it all, and then letting it all go
The real work is never done, and has no clear beginning
And shows no result, no losing, no winning.”
“Alone but Not Alone,” one of the more uptempo songs on the projects, explores the juxtaposition often experienced by anyone who is walking a spiritual path (or, for that matter, a deep and engrossing love of any Other) – that sense of being fully present in something outside the now:
“I am alone but not alone
I am here but hardly at all
I am alone but alone
I am here waiting for your call.”
Whatever its source, the mysticism whose depths Tony Dekker has plumbed here has definitely inspired a gorgeous set of songs. Lyrically, I’m reminded of the work of sixteenth-century mystic John of the Cross, whose poetry explored similar ground: the places that the soul goes when it lets its shackles go and is willing to dive into that dark night of the soul to find what lies beyond. Musically, the expanded soundscape greatly enhances the superb songwriting, and also allows collaborators Josh Van Tassel, Bret Higgins, and Erik Arnesen to shine even more brightly. Highly, highly recommended.