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First Play: Heavy Bell, By Grand Central Station

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Andrea Warner

A high-art concept album about an overwhelming passion between two writers is a bold foundational choice on which to craft one’s debut, but Winnipeg-based duo Heavy Bell is composed of a seasoned indie rock veteran (Royal Canoe’s Matt Peters) and an actor/singer-songwriter (Tom Keenan), both of whom dream a little bigger than some of us.

The avant-chamber-pop album, By Grand Central Station, takes its name — and its inspiration — from Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s acclaimed 1945 prose-poetry book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Stream it now, one week before its release, in the player to your left.

Smart’s book is believed to be lightly fictionalized autobiography, and at the centre of its turbulent torn-heart beauty is Smart’s tumultuous love affair with fellow writer George Barker. The book is a cult favourite, a loose map on which the sprawling ups and downs of Smart and Barker’s relationship take on an impossibly tragic and romantic mythology. There’s a surplus of passion and complex humanity in their love, which waxed and waned without regard for their other relationships and romances, their friends and peers, their four children, or any of Barker’s other 11 children.

In other words, there’s more than enough source material to not just sustain Peters and Keenan’s vision, but inspire the musicians to new heights of creativity.

“This album is a paean to the novel: a song of praise and triumph,” Heavy Bell writes on its site. “We were struck so deeply by its incredible words that we had to set them to music. We chose passages that provide an impressionistic view of the woman’s inner journey; we let the flow of the words dictate the form of the songs, rather than adhering to standard structures. We arranged the songs for a chamber ensemble in order to reflect Smart’s vibrant humanity, and to express a great range of emotion confined to an intimate space. Whereas the initial composition took only a few days, the scoring took place over the next several years.”

The resulting album is an ambitious debut that is intimate and haunting, heavily reliant on piano and Peters’ and Keenan’s voices, but with beautiful flourishes from a variety of musician friends, including Begonia and members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The lyrics are largely sourced from Smart herself.

“The intensity of her experience and the vivid, lyrical language made the songwriting feel somewhat inevitable,” Peters says via press release, recalling the 2009 winter when he read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for the first time.

The album shifts with the ups and downs of Smart and Barker’s relationship, and even in the most upbeat moments, there’s a foreboding chill, an austerity that comes with gentle reverence for the doomed torment of Smart’s words. “I’ve grown from one shape into another,” they sing on the sprawling and cathartic “O Waste of Moon.”

“The pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end. It had operatic grandeur,” Smart herself says, reading an excerpt from her book in a 1982 archival recording from CBC’s Morningside which Heavy Bell lays over a piano-driven arrangement.

The most out-there tracks on the record come near the end, such as “I Am Going to Have a Child.” Propulsive, insistent, and theatrical, it’s a radical shift from the album’s heretofore relatively gentle, sing-song-y treatments, and it, along with the soaring final track, “All the Paraphernalia,” seem poised to showcase how By Grand Central Station might translate onto the stage eventually.

In an album full of thoughtful, evocative arrangements, the stand-out has to be “Certainly,” a song that starts out like a Philip Glass track, pivots into a brief splash of indie rock, and then spins into a dizzying round, Peters’ and Keenan’s voices lapping over one another. It’s brilliant, intoxicating and unsettling — a perfect tribute to Smart’s beautifully complicated By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner