As we creep up on the one-year anniversary of Elliott Smith’s passing, it seems surprising that so few claimants have emerged to even attempt to pick up his mantle of tortured, vulnerable songwriting. No doubt, there are some among us who would like to nominate Denison Witmer to fill that void, as his soft, plaintive voice and gift for imbuing melodies with an innate sense of hurt offer occasional glimpses of genius. But with five albums now in his catalog (the same number Smith produced before his death) such comparisons feel a bit simplistic; Witmer gives little impression he has anything in common with the troubled genius stereotype or that he uses his art to purge the pain of his soul. Despite all his talent, he often looks like another interesting but not exceptional singer/songwriter, comfortable in his explorations but running over the same conceptual ground, album after album. With …And Flows Into the Sea, however, we see the first attempts to make a change, however slight, to his formula.
Attempting to make the creative process a more collaborative venture, Witmer has formed an elastic coterie of friends, named the River Bends, as his backing band. Still, there’s little denying that Witmer looms large over the proceedings, writing all but one of the album’s 11 tracks and largely leaving the distinction between this and his previous work to exist more in theory than reality. From the humble electric and acoustic strum overlaid with lap steel and croaky synth that open the disc on the sweetly sighing “Looking for You” to the solo piano foundation of “You Could Be Anything”—a tune that dissolves into a swirl of dobro, organ, and rolling drums—the only noticeable difference in approach is the slightly more pronounced sense of drama that’s possible with a larger cast. As before, Witmer has made an album of songs largely constructed out of the same stuff, but this time you can expect a few more elements in the mix.
And these elements emerge subtly, whether on the burned-out country pop of “Days Repeating” or the shimmering organ lines climbing over the solemn acoustic strum of “I Love You April.” Yet, the album struggles to find a distinct sonic character. Witmer’s songwriting is still a bit ambivalent, perhaps intentionally so, sometimes changing the temper of his sentiment within the same chorus, bitterly crooning “I’m sorry, not sorry / Things end this way / Don’t go, don’t stay” over the ringing organ and spiraling guitar solos of “Lawyers and White Paper.” For someone who seems to like working in contrasts, his albums have been almost unsettlingly balanced, with nearly every song in his oeuvre falling within a remarkably consistent set of melodic and lyrical strictures.
In the end, Witmer just can’t muster that sense of dynamic tension defining the character of the very best singer/songwriters. An unintentional casualty of his considerable abilities with pairing melodies and vaguely probing lyrics is that his songs are built with a sense of ease that almost makes them seem passively disinterested. And in a strange way, his consistency is his greatest weakness, allowing his more subtle gifts to remain underdeveloped, compensated for by his obvious strengths. He has expanded his craft as a songwriter over the course of his five solo albums, but that growth has been so understated as to go almost unnoticed. Ultimately, it’s not exactly a breakthrough, but …And Flows Into the Sea is the best album Denison Witmer has made. Throughout, Witmer remains a man whose potential stays one step ahead of him. At this point, it might be true that he has yet to write a truly bad song, but in doing so it seems that he risks never writing a truly great one, either.