S. Carey’s solo career has been a slow burn. Cultivated and recorded in the time off he gets from recording and touring with Bon Iver, his collections of songs, which often come out without much fanfare, have acted as a nice balance to the high-concept work of his band mate and pal Justin Vernon. Meanwhile Vernon has grown increasingly experimental over the last few Bon Iver albums, his ideas culminating in the wildly popular and risky album “22, A Million” released in 2016. In many ways S. Carey has taken the opposite path with his music. In his latest work, “Hundred Acres,” he’s sanded down the edges, softened the tones, and made his already soothing voice as gentle as a babbling brook. The result is a record that’s as easy to listen to as it is to forget.
Carey hinted at the release of “Hundred Acres” a few months ago when he debuted a video for “Fool’s Gold,” which featured him and his band playing, appropriately, in front of a crackling fire in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Full of the delicate sparkle of synth and pedal steel, the song’s mix sounds as if it was somehow filtered through the golden sunlight of dawn, fields of wildflowers opening to the light, even as Carey’s lyrics vaguely seem to reference death: “Wrapped you in white paper / And sent you downstream.”
It’s hard to hate “Hundred Acres.” It’s probably the most unobtrusive and gentle record I’ve reviewed in the last year. Still, the general feeling I get the with the album is a sort of glazed over “meh.” I imagine the record will get a lot of play by people who just want something they can talk over at a potluck or when sipping craft beer around a bonfire, the type of listener who gravitates towards slick production values and enjoys the sickeningly perfect sound of artists like Ed Sheeran.
Maybe “Hundred Acres” wouldn’t be so disappointing if S. Carey’s previous work hadn’t been so promising. “Range of Light,” his previous full-length release, was an interesting blend of dynamic rhythms and haunting beauty, often coalescing into compositions that ached in hushed and quiet moments, and then would erupt in reveries of joy of beauty. Listen to “Fire-Scene” or “Glass/Film.” On “Hundred Acres,” these dynamics are mostly gone, exchanged for the constant strum of an acoustic guitar, the sounds of which easily melt into a relaxing palette of synths and underwhelming rhythms.
And it’s not that I don’t vibe with the themes that run through “Hundred Acres.” Connection with the natural world, and the pleasures of digging deep into relationships with friends and family, are all things that should be celebrated, especially in a music industry that seems to automatically default into themes of power, pain, and heartbreak. But the problem here is that Carey doesn’t dig deep enough. The album feels like the equivalent of nature poetry that delights in the wonders of mountain streams and deep, wooded valleys but doesn’t seem to say anything about the complexities and wonder of being human.
If you listen close enough, there are a few saving graces here. “Hideout” has some energy to it, pushed along by a frantic picking line on the guitar. Here, the beautiful washes of strings and synth balance well with the rhythm of the picking: “When the body dried out / I saw death within you / In my lover’s hideout / All dark with you.”
Another is “Meadow Song,” which is so jaw-droppingly beautiful that it almost saves the rest of the album from banality. “The holes are patched in thanks in part to you,” Carey sings amid sublime washes of sound. It’s a gorgeous love song, and one of the only tracks that pushes through the beautiful veneer of the album to strike a deeper, and much richer chord.