Last time we checked in with Great Lake Swimmers, their third album, Ongiara, widened the instrumental palate they used to paint their pictures, even as the pictures remained largely the same— low-tempo, sad-sack acoustic tunes which understatedly located metaphysical truths in the mundane. Their new album, Lost Channels, confidently continues the more tentative steps they’ve made in their slow trajectory from the stark cold chill of their debut, Great Lake Swimmers, into the warmer and richer climes of their current work. This trajectory can be likened to that of an actual Great Lake swimmer. Their self-titled debut was a dog-paddle alone out in the middle of a freezing lake. Bodies and Minds saw the swimmer reach the shore and have a towel thrown over his shivering back, exhausted and wondering if he should have just stayed in the lake. Ongiara was the plopping down in front of the fire for a warm drink and dry clothes, though the swimmer’s body had grown somewhat stiff. Lost Channels sees the metaphoric swimmer thawing further, becoming aware of his new, richer surroundings, while trying to make sense of how he ended up alone in the cold lake in the first place.
The most obvious thing to say about this album is that it is a decisive move toward a more full band approach. This ability to utilize a larger group of players affords a wider instrumental palate that includes, in different doses on different songs, traditional instruments like banjos, flutes, strings, prominent background vocals, pedal steel guitar, and mandolin. In addition to the broadened sound, the individual songs on this outing show more variety and personality stylistically. There are three up-tempo folk-rockers on which it sounds like Out of Time-era Peter Buck might be sitting in, jangling away (“Palmistry”, “Pulling on a Line”, “She Comes to Me in Dreams”). “The Chorus in the Underground” and “Still” sound almost communal in comparison to insular throwbacks like “Stealing Tomorrow” and “Concrete Heart”, the latter of which features twinkling piano like blooming flowers (or perhaps dandelions sprouting through the cracks in a broken heart). In this way, instrumental flourishes mirror processes of the natural world, sonically reproducing Tony Dekker’s prime lyrical strategy. The arrangement of “Everything is Moving So Fast” makes it sound like rain plunking down on a variety of objects outside your window. Drums break into “She Comes to Me in Dreams”, waking the titular dreamer with booming thunder followed by a flash of lightning from the lead guitar.
Tony Dekker has always set himself apart from other singer-songwriters with his insightful lyrics which ponder interconnections between perceptions and processes, humans and their environment, the little things and the big things. This style, which is first evidenced on Lost Channels by the cover art, which is an image of a palm print that looks like a mountainous landscape, is still intact here, but jumps off the page less vividly than on previous efforts. He still comes up with some definite winners: ruminating on the tension of lines (on a palm, on a guitar, on the page, in the sky) as the force that shapes reality; watching a band downstairs in a cold, dark basement as an affirming commiseration of co-depression; and the paradox of still being still (or put another way, being continuously inactive) as the simultaneous celebration of oneness and nothingness. Dekker has always seemed to me more metaphysical than mystical, but on this outing some of the lyrics are starting to edge closer to the easy contentedness of finding salvation through natural beauty instead of finding existential insignificance in the similarities of all matter. That said, there’s a good mix of elements here, and the increased focus on the diversity of the musical side of things takes the spotlight off the lyrics to a certain extent.
Of course, regardless of any of this, Dekker’s voice is still transfixing and will still be the focal point of the band. If you’ve never heard it before, it’s soft and ghostly, grounded but willing to soar, damaged but resilient. Some of the intimacy of past efforts is traded in for a depth of sound, which is a move that suits the band just fine. In interviews it has been stated that the lost channels referred to in the title are geographical realities in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River where the band recorded Lost Channels. I prefer to think the title refers to the way the album is composed of songs accentuated by a variety of stylistic influences, like a trip through the lost channels of the radio dial.