Sincere Insanity by Often the ThinkerRelease date: March 3, 2023
‘For What’s Missing’, the first track on Often the Thinker’s fifth LP, Sincere Insanity, creeps up on you. It begins with soft, are-you-sure-you’re-really-hearing-them ambient tones, and then, bit by bit, delicately picked guitar begins to emerge from the background. At a time where ambient music can demand attention and post-rock is paradoxically veering back towards arenas, it’s refreshing to hear music that leverages the subconscious, its impact settling in on the body until, when pedal steel seeps in around the six-minute mark, closely followed by distant horns, it draws you fully back into the present.
A variation on Westminster Quarters leads us into ‘Begging Morning’ (perhaps a reference to the collection plate being handed around in church on Sunday), but the recognisable melody soon transforms into deep thunderstorm drums and lapping waves of guitar. By the middle of the song, the sound is rich and multi-instrumental, textural but staying within the same collection of timbres, a blanket woven from scraps of familiar wools. There is comfort to the sound, but it doesn’t last long enough to become dull; the music turns once more, this time into a post-rock landscape of drums deep with movement, guitar melody mirrored by strings and, much later, piano. By the end we are drifting on a deep and quiet ocean. The song feels like a journey, perhaps a journey away from the known and constrained and into new and resonant territory.
‘Sincere Belief’ is a dance with texture, too, brushed drums and the creaking slide of guitar strings threading a warp that is eventually filled with the weft of other instruments. Often the Thinker boasts an orchestral lineup, which at present includes composer Drew Lundberg on guitars and bass (often rooting us in the “rock” of post-rock) as well as synths and lap steel, Travis Drumm on drums and percussion, Bryant Gee on piano and keys. Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene) adds shine with trumpet, trombone, keys, nyckelharpa, and bass as well as production, while heart comes from Philip Sterk’s pedal and lap steels. Upright bass, saxophone and harp by visiting artists also punctuate the album.
Chime and organ tones theme throughout the album, and, alongside some of the track titles, suggests a comment on religion. If there’s a discomfort to the modern ear at hearing the word “insanity” — generally deprecated as a term for mental illness — perhaps here it is angled purposefully at an institution that might have levied that same term harmfully at individuals. But perhaps not. Lundberg’s compositions don’t give quite enough hints to fully decode.
Social critique or no, the music itself provokes thought, spearing us with unexpected soundscapes like the bustling-airport cymbals of ‘A Mother’s Sting’ and the whispering drum dance of ‘Sincere Belief’. Guitar often carries the theme, which is then echoed on warmer instruments like the horns and steels. White space is employed to create virtual symphonic movements; songs alter emphatically in the middle, take a breath, then alter again. The shrill metallic birds and low-fi electronic bassline of the second half of ‘A Mother’s Sting’ come as almost a shock, forcing the listener to rethink what has come before.
At its least effective, Sincere Insanity feels chaotic and disconnected. At its most, it manages to sew the disparate sounds into a circle, recalling earlier themes, bringing the listener back to themselves, as if to say — either about Often the Thinker or about any of us — “I contain multitudes”.