At the start of a new year, one can’t help but reflect on what’s going on in their life. I’ve got a fairly long drive to get to work, which means a lot of time every day to just listen to music and let my mind wander. Several weeks ago, I added Speak Low If You Speak Love’s Nearsighted to my library for these drives, and since then it has been an essential part of these gloomy winter commutes. I was already familiar with Ryan Scott Graham’s songwriting from Speak Low’s previous album, Everything but What You Need, but that didn’t prepare me for this album, which took what we already knew Graham could do and elevated it all into something truly special.
Nearsighted is an example of how self-reflection can help you to make sense of yourself and how to move forward from difficult feelings. The album opens with “Have I Changed,” a song in which Graham is trying to figure out why it is that he feels so skeptical and apathetic. The song opens with ambient synthesizers rather than the familiar acoustic guitar of his previous work, already signaling a departure from his previous sound. As the song goes on, the instrumentation builds, adding guitar and piano before stripping itself back for the song’s thesis, “I cannot put my thumb on when I went so numb.” From there, he spends the rest of the album trying to figure that out.
A lot of the songs on Nearsighted are written to analyze the failures of past relationships. The whimsical “Contrasting Colors” reflects upon the frustrations of maintaining a relationship with somebody who is too different from you, while the horn-laden “Cannot Have It All” shows Graham at his most open, stating, “I’ll let you in but you cannot have it all / I’ll lose control if I get too vulnerable.” The electronics-laced piano ballad “Safety Net” is an assertion of his own worth and features gorgeous guest vocals from Hannah Dob. A line in this song succinctly describes Graham’s confusion and self-examination in the aftermath of these broken relationships: “There’s a hint of brief uncertainty / A touch of perfect honesty.”
However, a lot of songs chart new territory for what Speak Low can be and can sound like, such as the lead single “Enough,” a bouncy celebration of the rush of a new relationship. The track is captained by an forceful bassline, which drops you into the pop of every chorus, one that is sure to be stuck in your head long after the album ends. “Circle Spinning” starts with a crackling drum machine introduction, which erupts into a bright guitar riff reminiscent of some of Death Cab For Cutie’s more upbeat offerings. In contrast to the rest of the album, the haunting and bare “Hatsuyume” stands out with its understated instrumentation, allowing the striking lyrics to become the focus of the track.
Although these songs to carry some level of familiarity to what we already know of Speak Low If You Speak Love, this album embodies an entirely new atmosphere due to its expanded instrumentation as well as the stunning production by Aaron Marsh. Every song is layered exquisitely with not only the expected acoustic guitar, but also with pianos, synthesizers, horns, and drum machines, creating a fuller, more enveloping sound. Each note feels deliberate, and as you listen to the album more and more, you will find yourself picking up on new musical phrases and nuances each time each time you visit the world Graham has built through these songs.
Rating: 7 slices out of 8