The Innocence Mission are unheralded masters of folk. The Lancaster, PA group has been around for over three decades, but they’ve mostly operated on the periphery. For those familiar with them, the band is a deeply regarded treasure, but they’re also under-appreciated by far too many. In the ’90s, they had a brief brush with crossover success — one of their songs was on the Empire Records soundtrack — but instead of capitalizing on that, they opted to recede into the background.
After making increasingly sharp dream-pop over their first few albums (perfected on 1995’s Glow), the band pivoted to spectral and ruminative folk music, which they’ve been making for all of the 2000s. Every few years, they emerge with a collection of songs that wrest beauty and grace out of thin air. The band — made up of spouses Karen and Don Peris and bassist Mike Bitts — is, naturally, a close-knit crew, and the music they make together is wonderfully organic. See You Tomorrow, their eleventh album, is no grand departure from the rest of their work, but it is a testament to their consistency as a band. They’re one of the rare groups that have no need to push their sound in dramatically new directions; what they make is already so elementally good.
As with most of their other albums, See You Tomorrow was recorded entirely at home, in the Peris’ basement and dining room, and you can hear just how relaxed and unhurried the recording process must be. Warmth seeps in from every corner; little background sounds make it clear that the Perises are inviting you into their home and their slow-moving world. It’s breathtakingly intimate and delicate. But the Innocence Mission are also exacting musicians and producers, and nothing else about See You Tomorrow suggests it was made at home. Every instrument is crisp and precise. The guitars range from finger-picked to sweeping, and there are a lot of keys (pianos, organs, accordions, melodicas, etc.). Every sound lends the music a reverence, a hush that lets Karen’s voice rise to the front, a comforting and lilting ramble.
Her lyrics are built around small observations that open up an entire universe. Peris is on a constant search for meaning, and she invites the listener to look along with her. See You Tomorrow is fascinated with how we define emotions, why we feel what we feel and why what happens to us matters. “Scenes from a distance can easily make us cry/ Though we don’t know how to say why,” she sings on one track. Elsewhere she mourns a moment of clarity lost to time: “Things that we started out here to say/ Went down the street and turned into a day/ We couldn’t see, we could not explain,” she sings, resigning herself to unknowability.
These ideas are simply stated and presented, but the music surrounding them lends them a significant weight, like lost scripture. “St. Francis And The Future” was inspired by a Van Eyck painting that features a bustling city in the background while a religious vision plays out in the foreground. Peris was struck by that detail, and based a song around leaning in to see that vision of the future: “There was, far away, a background city,” she sings. “We only saw it with magnifiers and light/ And I do wish the future was like that/ Don’t I know it…” On “Movie,” she sings about the urge to push back time with some painterly flourishes of her own: “California windmills/ Let the arms move the other way/ Turn around the days.”
A lot of See You Tomorrow is taken with trying to mold the abstract into something we can understand. Still, Peris is encouraged by continuity, the hopefulness that we still get to see another day even if we don’t yet know what that day will look like. The album’s title, See You Tomorrow is sung on opening track “The Brothers Williams Said” with such conviction, a reminder that even in our darkest days we’ll have the same people by our side. “The kindness of your face does not go unrecognized/ Has not refused to shine in this most difficult time,” she sings. On “On Your Side,” she dreams of her mother and conjures up words of solace: “She’d say, ‘I have never let you out of my sight, I have not gone’/ She’d say, ‘The light is bright around you now, and I’m always on your side.'”
Her approach to life invites an easy enough analogy to the existence of the band itself. Throughout their long and steady career, the Innocence Mission have documented a life gone by, but one that is at least still going and excited by possibility. The struggles that Peris sings of are often small, but they’re made grand by the immense confidence of the music they inhabit. “Let the streets connect/ Let the lights give way,” Peris sings on the album’s closing track. “See, if you would call me, I would leave right away.” That steadfast devotion is comforting, just like the Innocence Mission have been for all these years.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Mac Miller’s as-yet-unheard posthumous album Circles.
• Mura Masa’s crisp pop guitar swirl R.Y.C..
• Brothers Madlib and Oh No’s self-titled team-up as the Professionals.
• Bill Fay’s understated and warm Countless Branches.
• Chubby And The Gang’s fast and loose Speed Kills.
• Algiers’ ambitious scorcher There Is No Year.
• Pinegrove’s languid and penitent Marigold.
• Holy Fuck’s strobing Deleter.
• of Montreal’s artificial pop yawn UR FUN.
• Bombay Bicycle Club’s first new album in six years Everything Else Has Gone Wrong.
• …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s X: The Godless Void And Other Stories.
• Anti-Flag’s 20/20 Vision.
• Halsey’s Manic.
• Little Big Town’s Nightfall.