(click here to play Pieces of Sky)
It’s 11:30pm in my little mountain town. The smoke hangs just above my head. Ash drifts over the hoods of neighbors’ cars and into my hair like exhausted snow flakes, and I walk down quiet streets saying hello to stray cats while I listen to Tomo Nakayama’s new record Pieces of Sky for the first time.
Two towns up (about 10 miles east), the fires are almost out and the volunteer sirens are quiet. Everything is still, except for the falling ash and my limping gait. When the first gentle harmony brushes against a light heart-beat of patting percussion and finger picked guitar, I catch myself holding my breath. It’s that unassumingly lovely, within the first 30 seconds of the first track, “Bright and Blue.”
I keep walking and keep listening, enthralled with the humble phrasing reminiscent of Jackson C. Frank, and an arrangement warmer and more delicate than Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. I find myself echoing the words, “There’s some folks who live estranged. There’s some things you cannot change. There’s some people you must live without.”
I am an embarrassingly huge fan of Nakayama’s work in Seattle chamber pop legends Grand Hallway, and have worn out a copy of Fog on the Lens, his 1st solo studio record. I set into this record with high expectations and preconceived notions of the sonic landscape I would find. However, I find myself caught beautifully off-guard by the sheer sincerity, grace, and risk of this body of work.
This record leads me drifting back to a childhood spent in airports, watching people say hello and goodbye in countless ways and languages as I held up a sign made with yellow construction paper and washable markers. When “Roma,” the second track, begins, it’s sounding like a concept record is emerging to take me with it. I’m transported to my awkward 7-year-old skin, lying in linked vinyl seats, watching people’s expressions change as they say “I love you” in Southern accents and Farsi and sign language. This is my soundtrack.
“Roma” sways between a bed of rolling piano, drum machine, lush string arrangements, and a chorus that rises and moves the listener to a different perspective. Subtle echoes of Bjork and Jeff Buckley surface. This is the first hint of the dream pop, shoe-gaze, and and feathery electric ambience Nakayama explores in later album tracks such as “Fourth of Julivars” and “I Will Not be Moved.”
The third track, “Undying Light,” is brought together in eloquent, blindingly joyful pieces, building to a Beatleseque single-chord psychedelic folk-romp. With reverb and tremolo-soaked electric guitar swells, an intersecting cadence of complimenting melodies, and the clarity of vocals chiming and sparkling, the intensity builds, leaving a virtual mantra ringing through: “No more fear. No more lies… Only love’s undying light. All illusions cast aside… Only loves’ undying light.”
Starlight seems to emerge in “My Life is Better Because You are In It.” That illumination informs the title track that follows. “Pieces of Sky” dips a brush into acoustic guitar walks that are reminiscent of Nick Drake. The song continues to rise, textured by eloquent doubled vocals and bookended with a hummed melody that lets the listener reflect and be still.
“Fourth of Julivars” and “I Will Not be Moved” are inventive, rich, brave, and patient. These two tracks bloom into an experimental depth and emotional risk akin to Joy Division and Radiohead’s Kid A. They are exciting, fresh, and glittering examples of Nakayama’s growth.
Next, the album swoons with soft nuance in two empathetic and aching ballads, the romantic “Walking for Two,” and a glorious return to chamber pop in “Make Me a Bird.” Both cuts are spellbinding and cradle this body of work, delivering the listener to the cinematic arms of “All Entwined,” Pieces of Sky‘s finale. Perfectly balanced in history and present, we find ourselves coming full circle with the most vulnerable creation in this collection, with Nakayama’s voice reaching up and up, almost as if in prayer.
If you can, take this record for a walk at night. Let it in. Invite your beloved ghosts.