Photo by Monika Rivard

At their best, songs and short fiction have a lot in common. They both tend to privilege mood over plot, they’re better at asking questions than answering them, and in their brevity, they lend themselves to bold experiments in craft. On their first full-length album as Cricket Blue, Laura Heaberlin and Taylor Smith show just how powerful those similarities can be as they raise the bar for high literary songwriting.

Their earlier releases pushed the indie-folk envelope, and Serotinalia sees the Vermont duo cross even further into baroque pop–think Sufjan Stevens circa Illinois–with ornate string arrangements adorning 11 narrative vignettes. The common theme that connects each story is the made-up word, coined by the duo, that gives the album its title. They derive Serotinalia from “serotiny,” a property of certain plants that seed when prompted by external pressures rather than in their due time.

One way or another, each song’s protagonist finds themself in such a moment of pressure. Sometimes the stakes are emotional, as on “Psalm,” which applies the exilic imagery of Psalm 137 to a woman’s relationship-survivor guilt. Along with some mournful guitar fingerpicking and dark, anxious violins, it elevates that self-contained moment of conflict to a poetic drama of biblical proportions.

Other times, life and death are on the line, as in the bone-chilling “Elliott.” As the protagonist finds herself in the clutches of a maybe-malevolent stranger–a trope in the stories of Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro and a horrific reality for too many women–a high-pitched rhythm piano illustrates her creeping sense of distress. Even as she tries to downplay the danger, Heaberlin and Smith expertly keep up the nagging tension. Here and throughout the album, they swing suddenly from major to minor sounds and back again, cleverly mirroring the sudden crises that befall their characters.

They have a talent for memorable melodies, but they’re just as likely to keep you hooked with rhythmic interest, especially in their most experimental piece. At nearly 12 minutes in length, “Corn King” is a twisting, turning ballad of ritual effigy-burning. As townspeople skip and reel through harvest festivities, Heaberlin and Smith shift through different meters and motifs, grappling with their album-wide fixation on the cycle of life and death, accompanied in the song’s climax by trumpets and timpanis.

“Little Grays” follows up that grandiosity and balances it with a vastly more intimate two-minute tale about a favored pair of scissors saved from a kitchen fire–a sign, no matter how small, that all isn’t lost. For all the fear and dread in these moments of Serotinalia–the album and the concept itself–hope carries just as much weight, at its clearest here in Heaberlin’s sweet, solitary voice and the comforting roll of the acoustic guitar.

Even when the lyrics feel impossibly dense and the symbols aren’t readily resonant, that emotional core you can only find in folk songwriting keeps each story compelling. At the same time, a network of musical crossfades and callbacks tie each track into the record’s staggering whole. If you like short fiction for its puzzle-like complexity, you’ll appreciate the way the pieces fall tighter into place on repeated plays, but even at face value, Serotinalia is breathtaking in its beauty and ambition.

 


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