Twenty years into his journey leading Great Lake Swimmers finds songwriter Tony Dekker reflective. As he put it, the band’s 8th studio album and latest project, “Uncertain Country,” is about “new beginnings, rear-view reflections, and ruminations on the fluidity of time.” A listen through the 15 tracks shows that Dekker speaks truthfully in saying this, and that he and the band have done so splendidly.
This collection of songs examines the passage of time masterfully, and that starts with the outstanding title track that leads off the album. “Uncertain Country” – the song – is insistent and driving from the start, with a feel that evokes R.E.M., complete with words in a stream of consciousness, though grounded in the title lyric. Dekker’s vocals ride the wave of sound and artfully point to the disregard that humankind has often, and still often, shows toward the land that it calls home: “Steel fingers in the earth determining its worth / Bones on the surface, left to weather.” Near the end of the song, a harmonica takes a solo in a folky touch and ushers in the dreamy ending that points the listener to the adventure that awaits.
“When the Storm Has Passed” sounds like the Great Lake Swimmers that we know – it’s much more acoustic in its arrangement than the opener, and flows along at a satisfying mid-tempo pace. It features the best chorus lyrics of the album: “Fast forward, hit rewind / Still rolling in my mind / Take a minute, maybe a few / Open your eyes / Now, where are you?” And the line “It’s in the eyes / That’s where the weather is” gives the listener a bit of translation for the song’s prevailing metaphor.
“Moonlight, Stay Above,” one of the pre-release singles, contains a lyrical punch that stands out against its sparse arrangement: “Am I looking hard enough? / And loving good enough? / And rising high enough / To know you this way?” Dekker’s self-examination here contains sentiments that would also be at home on Great Lake Swimmers’ self-titled debut, though with the benefit of two decades of maturity. The accompanying voices of the Minuscule Music choral choir lend a touch of assurance and gravity.
Choosing a favorite track from this album is no easy task – any of the aforementioned songs would be strong contenders – but my personal favorite is the brilliantly-titled “Riverine.” Lyrically a bit similar to “Your Rocky Spine” – “Your branches, your breakthroughs / You draw me into you,” the central metaphor of the song is that of a river’s gradual changes of course over time to describe the contours of a committed relationship. The bass line and keys punctuate the poignant lyrics while the steady drums pleasingly move the tune along, like flowing waters, just a sample of how well each of the band members fill their roles and complement the song.
Each song on the album fills its place admirably, from the track “I Tried to Reach You,” that sounds a bit like a companion piece to the band’s “Where in the World Are You,” to the buoyant and meandering “Promise of Spring,” to the strings-rich closing track, “Am I Floating In The Air,” that conveys a work weariness, but also the reprieve of flight, that brings the album to a graceful close.
Among the most endearing features of this effort are the four short interludes that give a behind-the-scenes look at the band at work, and clearly having a good time together. My favorite: “Since January,” where Dekker speaks, “I’ve been working on this chord progression since January,” a precursor to the following song “Swimming Like Flying,” where the chord progression that he labored over for all that time sees its fruition.
Long-time Great Lake Swimmers listeners will find much that they know, from a strong current of nature imagery to Dekker’s wistful and emotive vocal delivery, but also plenty of new territory to discover. Those who are new to the band will find a rich variety of emotional dynamics and musical approaches that still has a coherent core. “Uncertain Country” stands as some of the strongest and most consistent work by one of Canada’s best bands – and that is saying something.
Photo Credit: Adam CK Vollick