Over the years, Unwed Sailor has undergone several permutations, from the stripped down instrumental rock of 1998’s Firecracker EP, to the ornate arrangements and dreamy orchestrations of 2003’s The Marionette and the Music Box, to the psychedelic forays of 2006’s Circles. But on Heavy Age, bassist Johnathon Ford and his collaborators just let loose, with the result being Unwed Sailor’s heaviest album to date.
The album’s songs emerged from some dark events in Ford’s life (e.g., his mother’s death), and though sober and melancholy in places, the album’s moodiness is never oppressive. Rather, Heavy Age often feels pretty straightforward and unassuming, especially when compared to 2017’s mercurial Take a Minute; I’m not sure I can think of a time when Unwed Sailor sounded more relaxed and confident. And that’s saying something, considering the band is entering its third decade of existence.
Certainly, having two drummers — Matt Putman and Colin Blanton — helps with bringing the thunder, but Ford’s own bass-playing possesses a new level of muscularity and aggression. (One can’t help wondering if his time in Native Lights helped in this regard.) And guitarist Dave Swatzell rounds out the sound, adding texture, filigree, and color where necessary.
While Heavy Age as a whole is solid, there are moments when the band’s instrumental music becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Consider “Moon Coin“ ‘s jangly pop elements or “Jealous Heart“ ‘s weepy synths and cascades of distorted guitar. Or the title track, where Ford and Swatzell play their instruments with abandon while backed by cavernous drums. And finally, “Indian Ocean” finds Ford’s booming bass carving a path for soft synths and delicate guitar melodies so that they kick into overdrive when the time comes.
Heavy Age’s only real misstep is the meandering final track, “When You Want Me There,” which spreads several movements across 13+ minutes. It feels like a mish-mash of ideas and sketches that didn’t quite make it into full-fledged songs, but that Ford et al. still really wanted on the album for one reason or another. In any case, it soon overstays its welcome.
It’s pretty amazing that so many bands that I began listening to decades ago are still around, and not just still making music, but actually making some of their best music to date. Such is the case with Heavy Age. My fondest Unwed Sailor memories are of seeing them perform on impromptu generator stages at the Cornerstone Festival. In its finest moments, Heavy Age sits quite comfortably alongside those memories.