Eighteen years and seven albums into his career, Denison Witmer has ridden a pretty unique arc. His musical and lyrical abilities have always been strong enough to justify his straightforward singer-songwriter approach, but to the indie community, Witmer may be best known for his friendships – his 2005 breakthrough, Are You A Dreamer, coincided with Sufjan Stevens' rise to prominence with Come On, Feel the Illinoise and Rosie Thomas' gorgeous These Friends Of Mine. All three artists were regularly appearing on each other's records and tours at the time, so any superfan of one would inevitably discover the others. While Denison's music didn't have the Sufjan's explosive creativity of or Rosie's heart-wrenching fragility, his best songs combined pop smarts with gorgeous song-craft and tender lyricism to create something enduring and deeply personal.
Witmer's next album, Carry the Weight, was a little darker and a little stiffer, and the following The Ones Who Wait treaded water, rehashing old songs and sounds. But Witmer's choice to self-title his latest album, to stake his identity on this very set of songs, was no mistake. Denison Witmer is the sound of a man closer to his muse than ever. From the beginning of Denison Witmer's first track, “Born Without the Words,” it's clear that Denison and friends are back in full force. Sufjan Stevens' haunting, dreamlike piano is unmistakable, appearing throughout the album alongside electric guitar from The Innocence Mission's Don Peris and backing vocals from William Fitzsimmons and Dawn Landesall of whom hover prettily around the fringes of Witmer's voice and guitar, embellishing his minimalism without stifling it.
As a result, Denison Witmer is his most musically diverse release yet. The ethereal “Born Without the Words” sets the thematic stage of the album with lines like "I've grown too old to die young now / and I'm better for it" before slipping into “Keep Moving Brother, Keep Moving Sister,” a wearily minimal anthem about perseverance and personal growth, followed by “Constant Muse,” an intimate confessional about Witmer's creative self-doubts that bears some of his strongest melodies to date. It's not a perfect album – its most apparent weakness may be Denison's hesitation. A few slower songs towards the middle of the album don't fully capitalize on the moody music around them, as if Witmer is still figuring out how to make the most of this expanded ensemble. But the songs that follow in his trademark style (“Take More Than You Need,” “Constant Muse”) show that the muse that he sings about is no less inspiring now than in 2005. This expansion is genuinely creative, not the desperate response to a lack of ideas that often plagues songwriters of a certain age. “Right Behind You,” a mature ballad about marital devotion, is the most uncharacteristically developed, layered thing around, and it stands proudly as the album's centerpiece. It's arranged perfectly; every instrument contributes tastefully without ever getting mired in sappiness or predictability. Witmer sounds confident and comfortable as the frontman of that song's band, suggesting that his career would do well to go further in that direction.
It's hard to judge such straightforward artists as Denison Witmer who aim not to push the boundary of their genre, but to express themselves as transparently and universally as possible. How do you review that? Objectively, it's clear that this is a big album for Witmer. The Ones Who Wait seemed to display a songwriter retreating further into himself, retaining his style at the cost of his relevance, but Denison Witmer is a confident step into new territory. Relative to Denison's career, it's a success. But I think he has something important to add to the larger music world too.
The indie community of coolness and hype has a lot to say about confidence, projection of image, irony, cynicism – concepts to which a guy like Denison is the antithesis. He writes not like a tortured artist or a smug prodigy, but as a good friend, and it's a revelation to hear the compassion of songs like “Take Yourself Seriously” and “Right Behind You.” There's a selfless goodwill to these songs, yet his sentiments aren't coming from that vague, universal goodwill that we see a lot of in bands like The Polyphonic Spree, Cloud Cult or even Arcade Fire, and it's paired with a vulnerability that more enigmatic songwriters like Iron & Wine shy away from. Witmer's songs read like intimate letters that speak a supportive, concerned kind of love that you won't realize your music collection is missing until you hear it.
1. Born Without the Words
2. Keep Moving Brother, Keep Moving Sister
3. Constant Muse
4. Made Out For This
5. Let Go A Little
7. Take More Than You Need
8. Right Behind You
9. The Other Side
10. Take Yourself Seriously