Accents – Growth & Squalor Record Label: Deep Elm Records
Release Date: May 15, 2012
On May 24, a day I have forgotten to mark on my calendar, I will be seventeen years old. Weirdly enough, it doesn’t feel like I’m getting any older at all.
When I was seven years old, my birthday was the biggest, most important event ever, only behind Christmas and the last day of school. Now it’s just a check point, something for me to pass as I inch closer to college, then adulthood, as I count the days, unsure of what I should be doing or where I’m headed. And now I’m going to have to deal with losing another year of my life—one year closer to death and only a few steps closer to figuring things out. Yet I don’t even realize the way I take my time for granted until I get a chance to sit down and think about it. Life, even when it’s empty, has a way of overwhelming you until you don’t even know it’s passing by.
“Divide”, the opener of indie-folk project Accents’ debut release Growth and Squalor, hits hard with that sentiment. From the very first lines, “The shelter I have is not enough for where we are / The moon hides its face every night, afraid to die / The calendar tells us to wait inside our cage / I'll laugh as they send me to hell for what I've done”, singer-songwriter TJ Foster captures the same feelings that I do, and though the track is gently gorgeous, full of haunting, fragile harmonies, rollicking drums, and guitars, the message behind it could not be any graver—or any more important.
That’s Growth and Squalor in a nutshell: an album that is not just about providing a warm, uplifting refuge from the world but an active call to make it a better place. It’s an album that rails against the attitudes and beliefs that contemporary society invests so much in, an album about how oftentimes the things we take for granted are the most valuable—and an album that’s a call to action for the disillusioned, the jaded, and the hopeless.
One attribute of Accents’ work is its precision both in building its themes and letting them bloom organically within the songs themselves. Foster, who wrote every song here, has a fantastic ear for arrangements that draw out the significance of his lyrics, a skill reflected in the quality of the songwriting. Take “The Fog”, a song about dealing with both the urge to stay where you are and the need to move on, punctuated with wistful anecdotes like, “This is my heart / It's the only artifact that I've held onto / Not the letters that I never sent to home when I was growing.” The song is packed with buzzing, powerful guitars and the thumping of drums, tangling music and word together before they are one and the same.
At other times, the words take precedence, such as on the sparse ballad “Storm”. Musically, it’s the simplest track here, with only a guitar to back up Foster’s voice, but Foster’s lyrics draw out a clarity and sincerity in the song. Lines like “There's a hole in our chests that tells me love is no victor / It stays where it is and then heads south just for the winter / All the birds in the sky watch it float on home to its kingdom / I know there's a storm that will find us all” show the struggle between hope and despair that Growth and Squalor reflects. “The Low” is another track that works with this divide, a bittersweet confession of inadequacy that concludes with an attempt to reach out: “If you swim your way to me and lay your body down in my hands / I'll show you who I am, you'll be in all my plans / I'll have a lot to say if not too late.” Foster has a fantastic way of using stark imagery to capture his themes, and that strength is most evident in more subdued tracks like “The Low”.
The thematic implications of Growth and Squalor are both individual and collective; they’re as much about the ills of our culture as they are about the ills of our relationships, and Foster gets great mileage out of exploring both the seemingly futile present and the future we have the power to change. The upbeat, resolute “Alright With Me” is one of the more hopeful tracks on the album, acknowledging that today may not be perfect, but that tomorrow is always there. As Foster concedes, “I've been wandering for years among the statues / Of beings with much more sense than I / But time isn't endless and it could leave us soon / So if you're alright with me, I'm alright with me,” the track quiets to a hush, but the layers only pile on; the drums take center stage, then voices begin echoing in, the guitar returns, and the track climbs to its emotional high: the peak, it’s a fleeting glimpse of sun on an otherwise cloudy day, and it shines even more radiantly because it’s a completely earned moment, breaking through the haze and beaming at us.
The last three songs on the album work in an arc that resolves the many conflicts Foster handles in the previous seven. First up is “Around”, which begins with Foster reflecting on a stuck relationship, his only companion the acoustic guitar in the background. As the drums kick in, he muses, “Would you say there's a science to closing doors or unlocking them? / They'll keep comin' around”, the decision between staying and leaving, a question that he’s throwing at the listeners as much as he’s asking himself. The more complex and angry the song gets, as the drums grow rowdier and more bombastic, the more complex this question becomes; by the end, only one thing is clear: “So now I know apathy, 'cus it's been a friend to me / There's nowhere to go now but down,” Foster is left to conclude in the bridge,
“Routine Movements”, perhaps the most direct and furious track on the album, laments the—no points for guessing—routines that our lives have been buried in. But as much as it criticizes the trends, it doesn’t shy away from challenging them either: “Imagination's a leaking tap / Left to dry up like the Rhine,” Foster rages, before presenting a choice: “We can swim or we can die.”
Last but not even close to least, “Sorrow” is the longest cut on Growth and Squalor, falling only seven seconds shy of the six-minute mark, and not a single one of them is wasted; it begins as a solemn ballad before it crescendos to a stunning anthem. “Heaven's around in a most unlikely place / If we run, we might miss it / So put on your shoes with the laces extra tight / Because we've got a world left to cover,” coos a duet of voices, before they are joined by a choir of friends, closing out the album on a distinctly uplifting mantra: “Don't wait 'til tomorrow, let's turn this sorrow into steam / Because this time that we've borrowed, it amounts to more than what we need.”
As I write the conclusion to this diatribe, I am wrapping up what will be my fourth full listen of Growth and Squalor, and I already know that this is a message that everybody needs to hear. It is a warm, honest, and insightful look into our world today, and it is a message designed to reach as many people as it can. Even without that context, it’s a gorgeous, atmospheric slice of indie-folk music. And in any case, this is one of the best albums of the year to date.
And one last warning: if you have a birthday coming up, you might want to get to this as soon as possible.