Elephant Micah, the project of songwriter-producer Joseph O’Connell, today shared the new song “Return To The Abandoned Observatory,” the final advance single from the band’s new album, Vague Tidings, due out next Friday, April 9th, 2021, via Western Vinyl. Of the track—a captivating, gently crooked waltz—O’Connell says, “In this song, a group of astronomers are having their last glimpse at the night sky. It’s bittersweet. The world, as they know it, is changing. But they are determined to relish their view of the universe.” “Return To The Abandoned Observatory” follows the spellbinding “Eastern Callers” and the gorgeous, slow-burning “Glacier Advisors,” released earlier this year.
The raw inspiration for Vague Tidings came from a 2006 DIY tour of the 49th state. It was a trip that went off the beaten path—sometimes a bit too far for comfort. Now, over a decade later, listeners find O’Connell stationed at a creaky spinet piano, singing about the Alaskan sky. Throughout, his lyrics take a new angle on a pet theme: human encounters with the natural world. Vague Tidings places these encounters in the American West and, at times, in its sci-fi corollary, outer space. Its imagery draws from the allure of Alaska, the idea of Western prosperity, and the human relationship to wilderness more broadly. Often, O’Connell sings about the goal of capturing and commodifying nature. In poetic sketches of resource extraction industries and dark sky tourism, frontier lust runs amok. Pipelines catch fire and stars disappear, all to the tune of a stark, uncanny Americana.
After returning home from this unusual excursion—which had ended up looking like something between a concert tour, a camping trip, and an extended jam session—O’Connell started making songs. “I’d already written about Roman ruins and medieval cathedrals and so forth,” he says. “When I got back from Alaska, I began to draw more from the idea of ‘new worlds’ rather than a European ‘old world.’” This new material expressed itself in metaphors of mountain climbing, gold prospecting, and stellar observation. An American tradition of cowboy bronzes and sublime landscapes tends to glorify Western expansion. For his part, O’Connell intended to cast doubt on it. “What I had in mind, I think, was a kind of song that, instead of celebrating progress, was broadly anxious about where it was leading,” he explains.
Vague Tidings is a sustained, hallucinatory rendering of this theme. In style, its eight songs follow a switchback path between foggy incantations and mountain anthems. Made with a small cohort of acoustic instrumentalists, the record is rough hewn, but easy on the ears. To put Vague Tidings down on tape, O’Connell assembled some of his favorite musicians in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area, where he’s lived since 2015: Libby Rodenbough (Mipso) bows and plucks a detuned fiddle, Matt Douglas (Mountain Goats) breathes life into various woodwinds, and Matt O’Connell (Chorusing, Lean Year) sets the pace on a two-piece drum set. Their loose, imaginative playing pushes Vague Tidings beyond the singer-songwriter genre into something richer in texture. Ultimately, this is foreboding but spacious music, with plenty of room for reconsidering life on earth.
It took a while for O’Connell to make a record of his Alaska songs. But the passage of time seems to have turned this material, like celluloid film, into something extremely combustible. In 2019, the time felt right to do some preservation work. “The more it sinks in that the planet is at risk, and that we belong to nature rather than vice versa, the more relevant these songs feel to me,” O’Connell says.