Lifeboat, the latest release from singer-songwriter Dave Desmelik, is beautiful, cathartic and disconcerting. Its tender songs are deceptive, dropping the listener from light-dappled shallows into sudden, unfathomable depths. There’s real pain here — but that’s no reason not to wade in.
Lead track “Leave It Alone” is almost a warning, except that the finger-style guitar is so compelling and the melody burbles and rollicks along. Spare percussion suggests danger, but maybe it’s just a set of rapids on an otherwise placid float. “Here’s to hoping, eyelids closing,” Desmelik sings through effects, as if from another room.
“Head Rush” is almost a second movement to its predecessor, but here the instrumentation is layered. Notes blur as fingers slide over strings, reverb shudders and squeals. The album, Desmelik writes in the liner notes, was mastered by Seth Kauffman of Floating Action, and Kauffman’s sense of experimentation is felt. But this project — though a departure from Desmelik’s more standard songwriter fare, feels like it cuts close to the bone. It’s an authentic expression, the soul of each song bared though the manipulation of sound.
“Don’t Recreate the Wheel” is an aching track. There’s an inquisitive meander and a kind of buzzing drone that disturbs the blurry peace. “Let your inside out and feel what you feel. Be scared sometimes, down to your bones,” Desmelik sings before the dynamics pick up in a thud and boom — a racing heart. “On this collection of songs, I play a number of instruments including guitars, bass, piano, attempted drums, textures of Hammond M3, but with a heavy foundation of 4-string cigar box guitar and baritone ukulele,” Desmelik writes, though nothing sounds typical. It’s all reworked, recalibrated.
“Surgery, Recovery, and Love” is a spoken-word piece (“Haiku Song,” later in the collection, is another spoken-word offering worth noting), with musical interludes, in which Desmelik’s children give voice to those experiences. Those who live in or near Asheville are probably aware of the trials the Desmelik family has faced, but the track leaves a lot of space for personal interpretation. Illness is a universal human experience and, here, the musician finds a remarkable, graceful way to approach those wrenching themes.
The album’s longest track, “A Strange Realization,” is the audio version of performance art. It moves in acts from a moody, twilit instrumental, to silence, to spoken word, to eerie organ chords. Then the electric guitar enters like a desperado on horseback. It’s cinematic and dark and goosebump-inducing. The organ quavers and the guitar keens and there’s no air in the room. But hold your breath — it’s worth it. The song opens to a wide vista of sunset reds and murmurations — the synced rise and swoop of large flocks of starlings. Aviary calls cut through the melody and the percussion propels it deftly. Everything is heavy, and yet the touch is so light. It’s a nine-minute masterpiece.
“Battlefield” is a rocker, with peals of electric guitar. It’s a nice choice, placement-wise, because it keeps the energy up, delivering the listener into “Heart Light.” That track is a stand out for its raw emotion conveyed across roiling waters on a raft of gentle vocal and melodic swoon. “All the while we’re always close to the end of our time,” Desmelik sings. There’s mournfulness but also moonlight and space and an encapsulated sense of wonder. The album title, Desmelik writes, is “because in all of the complexities and uncertainties of life, music will always be there as a safe place.” And it’s beautiful how he’s used the project to work through and share something of his own experience. But this particular song sounds like a lifeboat itself — a craft venturing across the waves to carry its passengers safely to shore.