Equal parts Bright Eyes and The National, Sea Wolf’s fifth album ‘Through a Dark Wood’ presents a lush sonic canvas onto which the indie songbird paints his stories.
Stream: ‘Through a Dark Wood’ – Sea Wolf
Some things just don’t work out. You can pour your heart into it, believing it’s all going to be alright in the end, only to realize you’ve been pulling in the wrong direction the whole time. California’s Alex Church — who performs under the Jack London-inspired moniker Sea Wolf — knows this better than most.
His new album, Through a Dark Wood (released March 20, 2020 via Dangerbird Records), beautifully chronicles the pains of growing up and moving on, of failed relationships, turbulent times, and scrapping a whole albums’ worth of material because it didn’t feel right: “I spent a year writing and recording a new album and then realized it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t feel like the songs were connected as a group — I felt okay about the songs individually but I didn’t like them all together,” says Church via phone. “I tend to think of the whole of the record so for me I couldn’t make sense of what the record was. I couldn’t connect to it personally, so I was like ‘I have to go back and start over.’”
This blockage came from trying to write about the event as it was happening — in the middle of the woods, so to speak — meaning Church was unable to tap into what he was really feeling. “During the course of making the album I went through a breakup. I think part of the reason the first group of songs weren’t quite gelling was because I had been in a state of denial and just trying to keep everything in place. So emotionally I wasn’t really allowing myself to tap into what I was really feeling,” Church says. “I think you have to be in a free and open and connective place to write songs, so the songs just felt like I was avoiding something — I could just hear it.”
So, he pulled the plug. “I was so discouraged, it was horrible. It had been so long since Old World Romance had come out — which was my 2012 studio album — so I was feeling the pressure of like ‘I’ve got to get a record out.’ It was so deflating to think I had it done and then listen to it and be like ‘no, this isn’t it.’”
Daunted by the prospect of starting over, the former film school grad leapt at the chance to distract himself with another project, scoring Ukrainian film Julia Blue. Despite serving as an obvious escape from his personal and musical woes, it also offered one other major benefit: “I learnt how to compose strings. With the new record there’s a quartet and I wrote a lot of the string parts. There was also a lot of sound experiment with pedals and creating different textures in the film which I carried over onto the record.”
While 2014’s EP Song Spells, No.1: Cedarsmoke boasted a stripped down acoustic approach, Through A Dark Wood presents a lush sonic canvas that the indie songbird paints his stories onto. Equal parts Bright Eyes and The National, it’s a moody offering with insanely catchy melodies.
Starting with eight months of post-movie demo writing, the band finally got into a room together and fleshed out the ideas. A meticulous writer, it took Church another eight months to overdub and perfect the sound.
“My favorite song is “Blood Pact.” It’s probably the band’s favorite song too. I just love the feeling of that song, and the lyrics. Everything just sort of lands perfectly for me” says Church. It’s clear why. Starting with a lush, reverbed guitar, layers of instruments enter and leave effortlessly. The song’s calm beginning makes the rousing chorus hit even harder, as the painfully simple refrain repeats.
The other night I got in a fight
I struck someone because he was in my light
I’ve never done, I was losing it
Saw my reflection, and I cut my fist
Poured the potion down the silver drain
I pulled my colour up against the rain
My hair was getting long and hard to recognise
I made a blood pact and then I stepped outside
So, I don’t know what’s ahead
So, I don’t know
Oh, there’s nowhere else to go
“Forever Nevermore” showcases Church’s ability to make pain hummable—you almost miss the suffering because you’ve too busy tapping your toe. Feeling like a Travis track, it soon morphs into so much more: The quickly delivered lyrics land like a one-two punch, creating a melody that’ll stick in your head way past the last note.
This may be the album’s most endearing quality: The ability to mix super catchy melodies with tragic lyrics. “It’s not me trying to misdirect anybody but I want it to be enjoyable, I don’t want it to be all heavy all the time. It’d be a bit much if the music was super sad and the lyrics were super sad,” Church sighed before adding “I personally wouldn’t want to listen to a record like that.”
While not a concept album, this idea of struggle and growth binds the record. “I was thinking about a book of poetry. While each poem is about something different, there would be an overall style or theme that comes about because they were all written around a particular time and the poet was in a certain headspace,” says Church. “I wanted the title to not be specific to a certain song but be more about the collection as a whole, so Through A Dark Wood is that period that I went through when I was writing these songs.”
Through A Dark Wood offers a real-time glimpse into loss and recovery, pain and healing, pulling yourself up from the dirt and trying again.
It’s also incredibly rich, offering something different on every listen. Perhaps most importantly however, it reminds us that sometimes things must fall apart for better things to emerge.
Listen to Sea Wolf’s new album, out now!
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📸 © Mia Kirby
Through a Dark Wood
an album by Sea Wolf