The unbearable lightness of being
Eight albums in, Denison Witmer’s best record is 2003’s Recovered. It featured reverent covers of acknowledged classics from Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and Alex Chilton: tough competition, to be sure. But Carry the Weight, the latest installment in his ongoing mopefest, too often accentuates the differences between those morose masters and this young man. Witmer sings about “the weight,” but most of his songs seem feather light.
To his credit, Witmer has mastered the brooding, introspective,
early-’70s singer/songwriter template, and from a musical and
production standpoint, his earnest songs compare favorably to those of
Browne and his confessional descendants. “From Here On Out” is an
acoustic-guitar- and piano-dominated ballad that could’ve been ripped
from Browne’s songbook circa For Everyman, while “Song of
Songs” employs the hushed singing and lovely counterpoint vocals that
often characterize Sufjan Stevens’ folkier compositions.
The lyrics, though, are another story. Carry the Weight’s title
track—a pretty waltz that’s reprised at album’s end with some lovely
harmony vocals from Rosie Thomas—carries all the emotional resonance of
a Coca-Cola commercial. “Carry the weight of your brother / Carry the
weight of your sister,” Witmer sings in this vacuous neo-hippie anthem.
“If You Are The Writer,” a sprightly tune with the best melodic hook on
the album, is undermined by the kind of preciousness last seen on
puppy-and-kitty posters: “If you are the water I am the waves / If you
are the writer I am the page.” Other times, Witmer simply tries too
hard, as on the earnestly poetic “One More Day,” which features the
head-scratching anatomical metaphor “patches on the elbows of my eyes.”
It’s hard to know whether to call a tailor or an ophthalmologist.
Near the end of the album, Witmer gets it right: the fragile music and
the pensive, finely realized lyrical details of “Chesapeake Watershed”
combining for a perfect snapshot of rootlessness and ennui. But, in
spite of the clear debt his music owes to Browne, Witmer has yet to
approach the literate and emotionally charged grandeur of Browne’s best
work. He’s not running on empty, but the tank isn’t full.
Listen to Denison Witmer's "Life Before Aesthetics" from Carry the Weight on his MySpace page.