Warbler is the outfit of Oakland, CA’s Sean Sullivan. Sean interlaces folk, rock, and singer-songwriter elements to set a stage for piercing lyrics. In his crowdfunded sophomore release with NFfCR, Sullivan is more concentrated in the lyrics and the music. The project experienced some delays due to post-production hiccups, but this is an album well worth the wait.
One thing that Sullivan accomplishes in this album is atmosphere. Warbler’s self-titled release was musically thin. It wasn’t very immersive on the whole, which made it hard to appreciate the sharp lyricism. In contrast, Sea of Glass achieves a depth of experience throughout. The album combines a decidedly un-West Coast feel with some of Sullivan’s Californian sensibilities. At the musical center of this album is Sullivan’s guitar work, which at times shines through pure and simple, while clamoring in distortion and delay at other moments. This release also finds Warbler effectively harnessing the synthesizer, using it more for ambient purposes rather than always giving it center stage. It works to flesh out some of the otherwise bland moments without becoming a bland moment of its own as it so often did in Warbler. Sea of Glass has an organic and warm feel to it (a side note: this vibe is well represented by the album artwork which embraces a warm color palette and an image of a burning sun). Altogether, these elements allow the listener to embed themselves in the music and digest the challenging lyrics.
Speaking of the lyrics, these cut even deeper than before thanks to a more focused rhetoric. Sullivan is willing to step on some toes, but he does so in a way that almost seems gentle. This is probably due to the musical accompaniment. It also may be that Warbler finds a way to step on almost everyone’s toes, so the attack – while an attack on urgent issues nonetheless – feels less personal.
The album starts by addressing broader political issues, while hinting at the next sequence of songs which center on more specific socio-cultural concerns, while finally looking inwards at an individual level. “Zombocalypse” serves as a buffer between the first two sequences, perhaps using the Undead as a metaphor for the issues illuminated in the first sequence while also directly addressing America’s fascination with the titular shamblers. This track also serves as a snapshot of Sullivan’s strengths. It allows him to indulge in a little bit of weirdness (seriously: a song about zombies?), intensity (with lyrics like “Burn Babylon/Destroy the strip mall church/Make your hope in Jesus”), and musical complexity (dense layering of natural, synthetic, maximalist, and minimalist textures abide; and lots of fingerpicking, too).
The next “buffer track” shows off Sullivan’s tenderness at its peak. “Golden Gate” addresses the issue of suicide. Rather than pointing at any particular cause, the song illustrates the desperation and pain of a broken mind. It breaks the confrontational tone of the rest of the album, which makes it stand out as an exceptionally powerful moment. And, while the song addresses the societal pattern, Sullivan made an interesting choice by having the speaker of this track be in first person, which suggests that all of us are dealing with our own degree of brokenness. While the song’s speaker doesn’t find his hope, we’re still left with this prayer: “Save me from myself, oh Lord/The darkness in my bones is bored/And coming out with vengeance and a sword”
Sea of Glass is indeed unsettling by the truth it resounds in its message and by the techniques it employs to create its atmosphere. It’s really a lot to take in, and it’s not for the faint of heart. At times, there are textures that are rawer than they perhaps should be, but the album as a whole is a redeeming experience.
By the end of Sea of Glass, Warbler has laid out a host of concerns. He tells us that “There is no peace in Washington/There is death,” “The belly of the beast is waiting/For tender caged offspring/The inmate of your body,” and “These wolves in sheep clothing/Are teaching in the valley/Where the children run headlong to the grave.” Even still, Warbler professes, “I’ve got hope/In God who knows/Just who I am.” It’s a radical move of surrender to Jesus, and it’s one that Warbler suggests that we follow even as we experience pressure to forsake our own faith.
Overall, Sea of Glass is Warbler at his most urgent and his most skillful. Sullivan approaches the content with a level head, which illuminates the firmly set convictions at the core of this project. Not only does Sea of Glass avoid pulling any punches, but it also avoids throwing any punches that are not of the utmost precision. Sullivan’s aptitude for guitar and growing proficiency in atmosphere bring home some powerful strikes, but he also gives the listeners a chance for reflection. Sea of Glass calls for a change, and it gives its listeners fuel to begin that change at a personal level.
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