Madison-based singer and songwriter John Hardin drops his debut album as Bright Arcana. The album was recorded in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, by producer Shane Leonard (Humbird) and Grammy Award-winning engineer Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens). With an all-star cast that includes Leonard on drums, Ben Lester on piano, Jeremy Boettcher on bass, Josh Gallagher on assorted keyboards, Jon Neufeld on guitar, and a smattering of duets with Portland singer-songwriter Anna Tivel, the entire album showcases Hardin's ability to craft satisfying and poignant songs from beautiful melody, and a still-raw sensation of inconsolable heartbreak.
The songs from this exceptional recording were written after Hardin experienced the unexpected loss of his first child due to stillbirth, and explore feelings of sorrow, joy, despair, and love in the aftermath of a very difficult time. Against a backdrop of acoustic guitar and folk-pop masterwork, Hardin asks himself hard questions about the nature of materialism, emotional attachment, and individuality. "Old Bones" wonders out loud: when all of those things are stripped away and there is nothing but the Self, what do we have left?
The album is titled "Bright Arcana in the Lowland Plains," and easily transcends its own status as a collection of songs. This musical document traces the trajectory of grief itself, and the spiritual transformation that emerges from tragedy as a matter of necessity. In terms of musicianship, sonic presence, and distinctiveness, there is not a bad track in the bunch. But beyond that, the experience of listening to these meticulously-crafted songs in designated sequence is nothing short of a religious experience. For those of us that turn to music, equally in our moments of both exhilaration and desolation, "Bright Arcana in the Lowland Plains" encompasses the vastness of human experience, from the bittersweet and fleeting moments of romantic synergy to the terrifying immensity of existential solitude - and everything in between.
The tone of John Hardin's voice is both warm and solemn, while the subtle contributions from each of his hand-picked studio musicians create the perfect backdrop for his personal seance of delicate closure. It is as if, for a short time, we can see beyond the simple confines of mortality, into the ether of everything that is and never was. "Bright Arcana in the Lowland Plains" belongs among the greatest of roots albums, as an instant classic of indie folk that pulls immediately on your heartstrings as it transports you to a place of unspeakable tenderness, and exquisite beauty.