Angels of Death cements Jennifer Castle’s status as the guiding siren of modern songwriting.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jennifer Castle is not of this world. She seems to exist as a spectre, floating above and around just about every notable songwriter currently active in Canada. They know she’s present and they all do their best to appease her, or at least achieve what she is able to accomplish in her songs. That is no small task, as Jennifer Castle only writes songs that are rich in melody and structure; in poetry and spirit. A better north star they could not find.
In the years since 2014’s Pink City, albums from artists in Castle’s orbit (The Weather Station, Daniel Romano, U.S. Girls, to name just a few) all feel indebted to her spirit, or at least infused with it. It’s not so much a direct musical influence. It’s more profound than that; it’s an effect that stems more from the sense of freedom and gratitude that is so palpable in Castle’s songcraft: free in its disregard of structure, commerce, what came before, or what might come after; grateful, as detailed in “How or Why”, in how it celebrates the life Castle has lived and will live, as well as the poetics she so naturally wills. The most beautiful thing is that these traits are infectious. It’s impossible to hear songs like “Sailing Away” or “Truth Is The Freshest Fruit” and not want to achieve that same sort of artistic and spiritual transcendence.
With the aforementioned artists releasing what, collectively, is likely the most consistently strong period of Canadian songwriting in history, the question of how Castle further fits into this musical Olympus that she helped bolster was yet to be determined. With Angels of Death, however, Castle cements her status as a guiding siren, releasing some of the most accessible songs of her career while delivering philosophical meditations on death, writing, and how these two concepts interact with each other. Now, if you don’t see the connection between the two, you probably aren’t a writer, and to be honest, I have trouble wrapping my head around some of these concepts myself, especially without a lyric sheet in front of me. As Castle wryly contests on “Rose Waterfalls”, “No one said that poetry was easy.” But it’s this subversive nature — the endlessly pleasing music crammed with heady, poetic detail — that makes Angels of Death Castle’s most rewarding album to date.
Musically, Castle moves away from the string arrangements and up until the first section of the penultimate song “Tonight the Evening”, avoids much of the moodier drama found on Pink City. The one exception to this is the spare “Grim Reaper”, which without the strings, would barely register. Instead, we are treated to a pleasant stream of folk-rock speckled with tasty lead guitar, courtesy of The Highest Order’s Paul Mortimer (see the end of the title track) and warm, brilliant piano from Jonathan Adjemian. “Tomorrow’s Mourning” sets the mood for the album perfectly. Castle captures the sadness, but also the comfort of death’s inevitability, with perfect passages (“Passing through/the ever omnipresent song/ and singing along/ because there’s no way out”), soothing piano, and heartbreaking melody. It’s the most plainly gorgeous song she has ever recorded. “Angels of Death” sounds like a would-be Roy Orbison classic, and “Texas” is about as close as Castle has ever come to writing a bonafide hit. The handclaps throughout and the backing vocals in the chorus are intoxicating, but the lyrics find Castle saying goodbye to her grandmother, who seems to be going, and her own father, who is already gone: “In the name of time travel, help him to hear my little song,” she requests. The aforementioned “Tonight the Evening” ends with a repetitive mantra that could be a lost Beatles tune if they had even an ounce of the restraint Castle and her band captured in that farmhouse on the shores of Lake Erie, by the light of the moon.*
Unlike other recent albums that seem to be about death (but are really about life from the perspective of the dying) like Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, or Gord Downie’s Introduce Yerself, death feels less tragic, defined, and definite on Angels of Death. It is always present, but you’re never quite sure whether Castle is chasing death, or vice versa. Describing the album herself, Castle calls the concept of death “fictional” and that in writing Angels of Death, she attempted to write “messages to the future.” This is the exact type of freedom with which she has infected the songwriters in her orbit. It’s an ability to observe life and respond to it in hopes that you can transcend the physical boundaries placed upon you — that when those boundaries disappear, you are ready for it. Modern music and songwriting are so often lauded for being what we need right now, but by writing to the future Castle has managed to create an album that will endure far beyond the present and that will inspire those touched by her songs to do the same, in this life or another.
*I think if George Harrison were still around, Angels of Death would be his favourite album of all time. And if Castle was successful in her exercise, maybe it already is his favourite album of all time.