Dark Blue invites you to view the world not as a straight line but as a circular track, constantly reminding ourselves of where we have been and where we need to go.
Which came first: the singer or the songwriter? When listening to Dark Blue, or any Steven Lambke project, one must assume it was the songwriter that awoke in him first. Tellingly, it’s his singing that gives it away.
Lambke’s voice is a unique instrument, seemingly crafted out of necessity to serve the songs he writes. It is conversational, steady, and honest. “‘You call that singing?’” asks a heckler on the album opener “Fireworks”. It’s a reasonable question to an untrained ear. That said, it is a question that could have been asked of Bob Dylan or of Leonard Cohen. The voices of these two songwriters may not be for everyone, but to call them bad would be missing something. Their singular nature and nakedness makes them great, not the notes they hit or their perfect pitch. Their voices cannot bad, simply because they exist. The same can be said of Lambke. His vocal contributions to Constantines records were either howling punk sing-alongs like “Seven A.M.” from The Constantines or whispery folk songs like Tournament of Hearts closer“Windy Road”. Throughout his post-Cons career, however, Lambke has faithfully hovered in between those two poles. His last release, 2015’s Days of Heaven was his most hushed effort thus far, but it was also his most confident. It’s worth noting that it was the first record he released under his given name.
With Dark Blue, Steven Lambke has given us his most accomplished, up-tempo, and replayable collection of songs yet. It is a major step up in energy from Days of Heaven, thanks in part to the rhythm section: Daniel Romano on drums and Dave Nardi on bass. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Romano’s presence behind the kit is immediately noticeable. A handful of songs start with just his drums — a clear announcement of Lambke’s You’ve Changed Records co-conductor’s contribution to the record. His playing is not bombastic or overly flashy, but it is rock solid. His dexterous snarework keeps the momentum at a consistent and satisfying steadiness, ideal for strolling or rolling. Romano and Nardi’s contributions also add the occasional melodic lift to the record. The backup vocals they contribute in “At the Start of The Song” and “White Horses” are akin to Nancy Priddy’s vocals on Songs of Leonard Cohen, in how they lift Lambke’s melodies and give the passive listener something sticky to grab onto.
It is, of course, Lambke’s songwriting that really makes Dark Blue a success; he packs in so much story, character, and personality into these short bursts of music. A gracious and curious songwriter, it always sounds like he is trying to get to the bottom of something: to understand the world and around him, to understand himself and where he fits into the world he perceives. In the album’s accompanying booklet he lays out his philosophical relationship to his songs. “Calling equally to the past and to the future, the song has a double existence as an expression of memory and expression of hope,” he writes. Over the course of the album’s twelve tracks, Lambke masterfully circles in and out of dense poetry and plain-spoken observations of everyday life, as if to say “you may not know what I’m saying but you likely know exactly what I mean.” He doesn’t exactly lay out his dispositions plainly, but he does it extremely effectively. The best example is “I Will Not Lie To You”, one of the album’s definitive highlights. He more or less explains why he won’t or can’t sing “O Canada”, but it isn’t until after you latch onto the title of that song you’ve been obligated to sing since before you could form a real sentence that you realize his trick. He shows you exactly how easy it is to blindly sing along, all the while explaining why he cannot sing it. It’s a realization that makes you hear the song in an entirely different context.
Dark Blue is a record that invites you to view the world, art, and life not as a straight line but as if we are running on a circular track, constantly reminding ourselves of where we have been and where we need to go. It asks us not to blindly look ahead, but to take stock and always consider and reconsider our place in the lives and stories of others and our relationships to the things we take for granted. “I’m always beginning again,” Lambke states after he has moved on from the heckler’s words in “Fireworks”. He doesn’t demand, but he asks if you’ll consider doing the same. On Lambke’s artistic and philosophical continuum, it doesn’t matter what came first, singer or songwriter, past or future, chicken or egg, because the answer is rarely as interesting as the question.