Within seconds of hitting play on Astral Swans’ latest album, Strange Prison, listeners are transported directly into the psyche of singer-songwriter Matthew Swann: “I had a dream in which I killed all my friends/ they weren’t able to forgive, they weren’t able to forget.”
Swann, who made his debut in 2015 with his album All My Favourite Singers are Willie Nelson, is no stranger to dark — and sometimes morbid — scenery. It’s a comfort zone for the Calgary musician, presented in the form of a complex maze in his own mind where he is confronted by traumas and compulsions around almost every corner. But these are the necessary obstacles in order to find yourself on the other side of things, where lightness is able to shine through. On the album’s title track, Swann admits that “in my head, it’s a strange prison” — its 13-song journey successfully helps him navigate and, eventually, break out.
Sonically, Swann also expands his barriers, whether it’s the hauntingly beautiful bursts of harmonies on the Dan Mangan-assisted “Controls” or the more driving rhythms of “I Belong.” Also present on Strange Prison are contributions from Daniel Gaucher, Dillon Whitfield, Rena Kozak and Sarah Kelly, with co-production help from Mangan, Preoccupations’ Scott Munro and Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording engineer, Paul Chirka.
The one constant is Swann’s serene vocal delivery, though. A nuanced but effective instrument all its own, his voice carries a weight of wisdom to it, as if Swann had enough distance from his thoughts to look back at this darkness with a clear-mindedness, a reliable guide who is now able to take us from track to track.
“Despite these songs dealing with hard themes of pain, alienation and our limitations, the end objective is finding beauty to transcend the shittiness of the world,” Swann says in a press release. “My music is personal, but it’s based on a fundamental belief that humans have more in common than not.”
Our dreams and inner thoughts may not always match Swann’s verbatim, but it’s a place that many of us will find familiar and, ultimately, comforting.
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