Album Review: Radical Face, “Family Tree: The Branches”

Family Tree: The Branches

Ben Cooper, the singer-songwriter behind Radical Face, is a storyteller in the old-fashioned, gather-round-the-campfire tradition. The stories he tells on Family Tree: The Branches (2013) are occasionally laced with hard-won optimism, but are primarily stories of tragedy and heartbreak. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth listening to; Cooper’s plaintive, plainspoken character sketches are things of great beauty. But if you’re looking for an album to raise your spirits, The Branches is going to take some serious listening before the silver linings begin to reveal themselves.

The Branches is the second in a trilogy of albums (the first was 2011’s Family Tree: The Roots) about the fictional Northcote family, set over the course of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. The concept is reflected in the instrumentation, emphasizing the bowed strings, fingerpicked guitar, and piano that his characters would’ve been familiar with. The songs, however, are not connected narratively, at least not in an obvious way; rather, their primary connections are thematic. At the center of both this record and its predecessor are (surprise, surprise) family relationships, more specifically the ways in which families can be broken, and ways in which bonds of blood and shared memory persist in spite of the brokenness.

One of the major relationships that Cooper interrogates is the one between the “black sheep,” the perpetual outsider, and the rest of his or her family. There’s a Byronic quality to many of these characters, who perceive themselves as somehow “broken” and caution others not to become involved with them (“Crooked Kind,” “Chains”). As the narrator of “Holy Branches” sings, presumably to his brother (very possibly the brothers of “Always Gold” from The Roots):

There’s a hole in your chest
From the time that you were born
One that don’t get filled
’cause you’ve always known you’re nothin’ they want

Then compare these lines from the bleak “Reminders,” this time from the perspective of the black sheep himself: “You remind me of what I could’ve been, but that reminder ain’t much help.” I’m frequently reminded of Rainer Maria Rilke’s retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which begins: “It would be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of a man who didn’t want to be loved.”

At some level, all of Cooper’s (very human) characters want and need to be loved, even if they aren’t able to articulate that need. And this leads me to what I consider one of the keys to this album’s power. As skilled a storyteller as Cooper is, he often seems, like the titular figure of “The Mute,” to find words powerless to communicate the emotions he wants to express. So he turns to pure music. The climaxes of these songs largely consist of a transition from Cooper’s narratives into soaring, wordless vocal sections. It’s incredibly effective, especially on songs like the aforementioned “The Mute” or “From the Mouth of an Injured Head,” where the lyrics explicitly address the inadequacy of language:

In my dreams I can hear a voice
A call; a withering echo
And it sings, it sings all-knowing words
But ones I can’t understand
Here it goes again…

Shimmering moments like this keep a heartbreaking record from becoming hopeless. For The Branches is shot through with regret, frustration, grief, and desperation, especially as it comes to its close with the Industrial Revolution nightmare of “The Gilded Hand” and the fatalistic “We All Go the Same.” But the heart of the record, and the heart of what it has to tell us about family relationships, I think, is the climax of “Letters Home.” Taking the perspective of a crippled soldier, Cooper sings:

No matter if I sink or fall
Or blink out in this hospital
That I’m alright, yeah
I’ve made peace with it all
Mistakes and all

The final line is repeated over and over again, before dissolving into another one of those glorious wordless yearnings. Philip Larkin was right: our families screw us up but good. But that screwed-up-ness does not have to define us. If we can “make peace with it all, mistakes and all,” those aforementioned bonds of blood and memory create possibilities for us to transcend and transfigure our pasts. For Radical Face’s fraught family tree, the hope of transfiguration may seem a pretty thin silver lining; but the silver lining remains.


Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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1 Response to Album Review: Radical Face, “Family Tree: The Branches”

  1. Pingback: Tom’s Top 10 of 2013 | Revolutions Per Minute

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