For the better part of a decade, Jacob Metcalf has been hovering below the Dallas radar. You probably know him as one of the members of the very likable folk act The Fox and the Bird, for whom he has sung and played banjo, guitar, spoons, really anything that can make a noise. You may have also seen him busking the streets with that augmented crew under the name of the Dallas Family Band, bolstering a clodhopper chorus of heartfelt voices. To most, that is what Jacob is: one of the hirsute faces in a crowd of howlers and musicians.
Yet for a select few close friends and watchful fans, Metcalf’s larger ambitions have always been apparent. Those who have seen Metcalf play solo, perhaps during his lengthy residency at the Kessler Theater, understand that premonition. His songs had reach and he had a clear vision of what he ultimately wanted from them. Expectations for his debut album, if one should materialize, were lofty.
Personally, those expectations took root almost exactly seven years ago. Metcalf, someone I theretofore knew as a coffee-shop act, was standing center stage at Trees facing a micro-orchestra. Jacob himself was in coat-and-tails. His entourage was similarly donned in black dresses, ties and suits, poised with their bows above strings. The performance that followed was gorgeous. The songs I had heard in rudiment gleamed in Technicolor. After that, Jacob Metcalf could never hope to record mere singer-songwriter shtick – a man, a guitar and his cuddly feelings – and ever hope to get away with it. I would never let him. Fair or not, that night set Metcalf’s ceiling at cathedral heights.
To my delight, Fjord, Jacob Metcalf’s debut album, delivers. From the beginning, you can glimpse Metcalf’s genius as a singer/composer. The songs begin simply, build and then dart in unexpected directions. The arrangements are a rich complexity of cellos, violins, horns and voices punctuated by Metcalf’s deft guitar and steady voice. Like that night seven years ago, the material is rooted in popular songcraft, hooks and all, but embellished and dressed in extravagance. The songs are waves of grandiosity, but always riding a dark undercurrent. In “Winter in Wichita,” he slips cryptic forebodings into banal lines about eating French toast, before concluding, “I buried her; I’ll bury you.” Metcalf’s Fjord finds manifold and tantalizing ways to balance ornamentation with depth.
Jacob has always struck me as a careful personality. His cheerful whimsy in person is belied by the seriousness, demure way he discusses his own work. The songs of Fjord reflect that gravity. They all build to a frustrating incompletion, like someone pulling the ejection seat on a conversation before he can say something imperfect. As Metcalf puts it, “One Day I’m going to die just trying to get things right.” He rolls thoughts around, speaks them over and again to decide how he likes the sound, or maybe until he gets it perfect. But Metcalf always exits the song knowing he never can. Here on Fjord, it proves a very captivating way to write. The aforementioned “Wichita” is a standout example as are “Ein Berliner” and “Sarah Sells Shoes.” The songs are beautiful and fractional, they leave you at once impressed and wanting.
You could take Metcalf to task over the historical fetish of “Ein Berliner” or the cuteness of “Just a Job.” It would be easy fodder for an axe-grinding critic weary of singer-songwriters. But the weight of Fjord capsizes the petty thoughts before they can even get footing. The album multiplies its strength as it peels off the minutes. For the many who know Jacob Metcalf as a role player in other acts, they will hardly recognize him here amidst a work of such imposing ambition: an album that employs no less than 35 additional musicians and singers. Among them are Daniel Hart, whose influence is heard throughout, and Metcalf’s Fox and Bird bandmates, now happily backing him up.
Fjord is a rich album that meets my expectations of Jacob Metcalf’s focused imagination. The arrangements are deceptively complex, impeccable and alluring. The baroque qualities of Fjord make the Sufjan Stevens comparisons inevitable and deserved. Jacob Metcalf manages to weave ornate songs without coming off as ostentatious. It is a slice of life album that never quite ends its own stories. It is designed to make you either reflect in silence well beyond its closing bars or immediately relisten. Its only drawback is in setting equally impossible hopes for Jacob Metcalf’s sophomore effort. Hopefully that one will take fewer than seven years of rumination.
Full disclosure: My name appears among the scores of persons thanked in the liner notes, a fact of which I was not aware before I listened to the album or formed my judgments of it.