“It’s preferable for an artist’s sound to evolve rather than remain too firmly rooted in one place for long, yet at the same time the hope is that that sound will evolve in artistically satisfying ways. We witness Drew Sullivan wrestling with that challenge on his seventh full-length release as Slow Dancing Society, (deep breath) The Wagers of Love and Their Songs From the Witching Hour.
Certainly the signature elements of the Slow Dancing Society sound are present and accounted for. Sullivan’s material is as warm, textured, and resplendent as ever, so much so that referring to SDS as an ambient project once again feels woefully inadequate. Electric guitar textures and synthesizers collectively establish the kind of reverberant, expansive panoramas we’ve come to associate with the project, and representative settings such as “An Opening,” “Awakening,” and “Greenwood Boulevard” offer compelling arguments for Sullivan’s distinctive brand of immersive, ambient-electronic lyricism.
But in broadening out the project’s sonic identity to include trumpet, saxophone, and drums, some lessening of clarity sets in, making for a less sharply defined presentation on a handful of the nineteen pieces. At such moments, the musical result becomes something less indelibly characteristic of the Slow Dancing Society sound, and consequently downtempo, drums-driven pieces like “The Sin We Live In” and “Evening Falls” start to seem like slightly more generic variants of the SDS sound—at least until that trademark electric guitar enters. Further to that, when a muted trumpet appears in “The Last Spring (An Ocean of Violets),” the material could pass for a Mark Isham production (circa 1988’s Castalia) as much as one by Sullivan (not that that’s wholly objectionable). At such moments, one hears him concertedly attempting to advance the project’s sound without losing its essence.
Dramatic changes of another kind have recently entered into Sullivan’s life, with the Washington-based multi-instrumentalist apparently having become a father for the first time during the album’s development. Such a profound life-event induces both excitement and anxiety, feelings of which might be alluded to by the track titles “What The Day Brings” and “I’m Not Ready Yet.” In light of such a detail, “A Love Song From the Witching Hour” conjures the image of an adoring parent tending to a child in the middle of the night rather than the macabre meaning one might otherwise glean from such a title. A deeper awareness of life’s fragility and finitude also, however, might be seen to be evidenced by the titles “Don’t Turn to Dust, There is Still Time for Us” and “Evening Falls.”
At nineteen tracks, the album has an inordinately large number of pieces, and the listener is, on the one hand, grateful for such largesse, especially when transitions are effected so fluidly. Yet such a gesture introduces its own problem, given that such a plenitude introduces some degree of unwieldiness. Put simply, it’s easier for the listener to gain a clear sense of an album’s shape and arc when the track total is in the, say, ten-song vicinity. In part, that’s attributable to the format in play: the CD presentation lacks sub-divisions, whereas a double-LP version would see the pieces collected into groupings of four or five, numbers that allow the listener to experience them as coherent stand-alone groupings. (The effect has its psychological parallel, too, with respect to memory, as the mnemonic strategy “chunking” has shown that an individual can more easily recall sixteen numbers when they’re treated as four-number sub-groups.) If growing pains are discernible on The Wagers of Love and Their Songs From the Witching Hour, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given that they go hand-in-hand with a project’s evolution. No one, Sullivan included, would presumably opt for staying in one place instead.”