Review: Chris Staples, 'Golden Age'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
It's human nature to reinvent and romanticize the past. Memories fade and become distorted, reduced to proximate notions and imagined details. Maybe it's a matter of survival, or maybe just the innocent aging and inescapable fraying of synapses. Regardless, the golden age we celebrate was rarely as great as we remember.
This inevitable nostalgia propels the beautiful (and appropriately titled) Golden Age, the latest album from Seattle singer-songwriter Chris Staples. Staples began writing the unadorned poetry and spare arrangements that would make up Golden Age after he found himself longing for an earlier, seemingly simpler time in his life. He'd developed diabetes after his pancreas quit working; a long-term relationship had come to a painful end; he was in a horrible bicycle accident that led to hip surgery and a mountain of medical debt. Staples allowed himself to wallow for a time in the evolving myths of his previous life, but eventually realized he was clinging to a false reality. "Do you want to resurrect some golden age?" he asks in the album's breezy title track. "Sit down for a minute and concentrate, be honest with yourself: It wasn't all that great."
As Staples works his way through the stages of grief and recovery on Golden Age, he recalls his childhood (the innocently wistful "Cheap Shades"), reflects on lost love and youth (the beautifully melancholy "Always On My Mind") and longs for the days when he was free and in love ("Times Square"). Eventually, he owns up to a mountain of regrets. "Don't be afraid of who I used to be," he pleas in the relatively propulsive "Dog Blowing A Clarinet." "I hate him too, he wasn't me." As the album closes with the heartbreaking but hopeful "Diary," Staples seems to come to an understanding that the past is past, and that the only way to free himself is to let go of everything he once believed he couldn't live without.
Staples started out making much noisier music in the mid '90s as the singer-guitarist for the Pensacola, Fla., rock band Twothirtyeight. After the group split in 2003, he relocated to Seattle and started making more introspective acoustic music. He found his voice by writing narratives that were plainspoken and universal, with simple, disarming arrangements and delicate melodies that seemed to float on air. He also pulled back on his vocals, revealing the more fragile, arresting parts of his voice. It's an unassuming but potent mix of sounds that make the songs on Golden Age feel like close confidants.