“All children, except one, grow up.” – The Adventures of Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie
Henry Crawford is, without a doubt, one of the strongest and honest musicians in the indie world today. As a songwriter and contemporary of Crawford (we’re about the same age), I have to say that he is one of my musical heroes, among the myriad talents of music collective The Epoch. As Small Wonder, Crawford crafts delicate, fragile, heartbreaking, tender, raw, honest, and exceptional bedroom pop. Such is the case with Wendy, an incredible piece of art, and my personal favorite record to be released in 2014.
I had an opportunity to see Small Wonder open for Natalie Prass on Friday at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn. I didn’t get a chance to stick around for Prass (darn L train and living in Jersey!), but the night was still an experience. It’s been said that Crawford’s live performance is very different from his recorded output, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s any weaker. It was exciting to see Crawford perform, stripped of synths, electronic beats, or backing vocals. Just him and an electric guitar. And despite one song that didn’t personally resonate with me (which utilized the repeated line “wanna be a black bear in American places”), the experience was emotional, intimate, raw, and beautiful. As an audience member, I felt like I was in a dialogue with Crawford, like he was able to break through the wall between performer and spectator. There were three songs I definitely did not recognize from his recorded output (but later scoured the Internet for, haw haw). One involved mentions of Johnny Cash and June Carter, another used the word “Psychosomaticon”, and still the other, (his last for the night) made reference to Franz Kafka. That song, “Amerika”, may be my new favorite of Crawford’s output, and it’s kind of a shame it’s not available on any release (to my knowledge). Crawford had a moment in his set where he told a story about how this older woman gregariously punched his shoulder on the bus, thinking he was someone from her high school. As she walked away, she said something along the lines of “Take care, Henry”, which was an intriguing anecdote. That story embodies what Small Wonder’s music is all about. That even by not knowing someone personally, you can still connect with what they’re saying in a way that their words could have emerged from your own mouth.
This common thread is visible in Wendy. Crawford is able to put his words and feelings (and subsequently the feelings of countless others) into this work. I’m a huge fan of the use of motif in music, whether a repeated lyric, or a melodic idea. There is a particular melody that travels through several songs on Wendy. It first appears in “Ball Lightning” on a synthesizer, then again in Crawford’s vocals on “Lost at Highway”, and finally in the bridge of “Until I Open My Wings”, where it is played on piano. In an album, it’s especially inviting to hear that repeated idea somewhere else on the record, because it’s almost like seeing an old friend spring up again.
Wendy is a diamond of a record, full of moments of synth-pop, raw gospel folk, and brutally honest and sobering lyrics. Crawford has a knack for saying what you’re probably thinking (if you are a twenty-something, like me, then especially so). It kind of feels like this is the interior monologue we all have, yet don’t talk about. In 2014, Wendy was a wake-up call of a record for me, and was perfectly timed with my entrance into the “real world”. On the hinges of my graduation, I felt like the air Crawford describes on “Until I Open My Wings”: “Don’t let me out into the world.” Above all, it is a testament to the redeeming and revitalizing power that music can have, as said on opener “Ball Lightning”: “With my strength spent, with my heart cold/I put my faith in rock and roll.”
These are songs that tackle hard topics. “Suddenly Suddenly,” for example, deals with the certainty of death, but it also functions as an affirmation of what life is all about: the journey that you take, even if it is “long and narrow.” On “Until I Open My Wings”, there’s a sudden epiphany of self-reliance: “You’ll have to do this on your own.” That’s the crux of this whole aural journey, and what it’s all really about, something Tom Robbins once said so eloquently: “We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.”
The most positive track, and the most life-affirming (yeah, yeah, I know that sounds corny) is closer “Wind Let Loose”. After all of the news flashes, wake-up calls, and reality checks we’ve had, we get this promising feeling, that in the end, there is always hope. And if you’ve fallen, you’ll get up stronger than ever. At the end of this record, Crawford states, “I no longer was emptied of all the things I thought I’d one day lose.” Even if things are lost or broken,they can be found and mended. What a beautiful thing that is to know.
Favorite Tracks: Literally every single one.
Where to Go from Here: Bellows – Blue Breath, Told Slant – Still Water, Sharpless – The One I Wanted to Be, and essentially anything put out by The Epoch. They’re a brilliant, creative bunch.