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First Play: Jennifer Castle, Angels of Death

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Andrea Warner

Death — life’s perpetual shadow-self — is right there in the title of singer-songwriter Jennifer Castle’s newest record, and she’s not shying away from confronting and unpacking her own complicated relationship to mortality and legacy in and outside this gorgeous collection of country-soul gold.

You can stream Angels of Death one week before its release via the CBC Music player. Pre-order Angels of Death here.

But there’s nothing tidy about death, in practice or in metaphor, and Castle uses it almost as a substitute for something else. On Angels of Death, her first release since 2014’s Polaris Music Prize shortlisted Pink City, the Toronto-based artist isn’t interested in making a case for the afterlife, but rather challenging the notions of what living truly looks like.

“The fictional concept of death rears its head in so many of my songs, always on the periphery, or as a side note, or a reminder, a punchline or the bottom line, always sniffing around like a death dog,” Castle writes in the press release. “For once I wanted to try to put it in my centre vision. In order to talk about death, I armed myself with the only antidote I know: writing. Is this a record about death or a record about writing? Hard to tell in the end. I began to think of poetry as time travel. I tried to write messages to the future.”

Castle’s songs are vibrant and bountiful landscapes, and even in their quietest, darkest moments, they thrum and glow. There’s the exquisite warmth of the girl group-style backing vocals on “Crying Shame,” the twang-rock shuffle of the Al Purdy-inspired title track, and the hushed folk shimmer of the evocative “Grim Reaper.”

As a songwriter, Castle has a stunning capacity for crafting lines rich with nuance, humour and devastating beauty. “When you believe in me/ I’ll lift you from your little grave,” she sings on the compelling and crushing “Texas.” There’s the gentle gallows humour on “Tomorrow’s Mourning,” the album’s opening track: “Not a fog, not a mist, not a cloud, but you get the gist.” “Rose Waterfalls,” a brilliant rumination about the messy business of writing that feels like a nod to the great Leonard Cohen: “And muses if you ever catch me in the news/ you can kill me muses any way you choose.”

On Angels of Death, Castle has coaxed from her bones a love letter to the poets, and invited her audience inside the creative process, which, like death, is its own impossible negotiation between utterly natural and wildly unfathomable. This is a record of jolts and gentle hands, a space in which to find answers in every verse and questions in the silences. It’s the kind of art that will continue to call you home for years and years to come.

Pre-order Angels of Death.

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


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