Arthur Alligood: Portage, Vol. 1

My first introduction to Arthur Alligood’s work was his stripped-down acoustic album The Shadow Can’t Have Me. The honesty in his lyrics struck me, and I looked forward to his new project with anticipation. Portage, Vol. 1: At the Edge of the World offers more of his lyrical depth with a new musical approach, setting aside the acoustic guitar as the primary instrument and instead moving the songs through a forest of synths, piano sounds, and drum beats.

The EP kicks off with a dreamy soundscape on “Foolishness of Man.” It calls forth the moodiness of quieter Springsteen songs in a way that prepares the heart for lament but simultaneously comforts with a familiar tone. The use of the title as a refrain ending each verse emphasizes the plaintive lament about our culture’s tendency toward judgmental attitudes and actions. The Portage project name comes from the ending lyrics, “I stand here on the shoreline / I will take the portage path / ‘Cause only love will end this hatred: the foolishness of man.” The song ends with a gentle instrumental outro that lets the listener reflect on this commitment to do the hard work of communicating and connecting rather than becoming swallowed by despair or cynicism.

Track two introduces a light, hopeful riff, which is soon joined by a thick tapestry of drum machine and other synth sounds.  “Where the Sparks Fly Upward” borrows from Job, in which Eliphaz says “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” If indeed this image is what the lyrics are pointing to, the singer invites the listener to meet him right there in that trouble, unashamed and undeterred. Many synth phrases dance in and around each other, and they all layer and fit in ways that pique interest and make one want to hit repeat to hear them again.

From the beacon of fire, we plunge into a minor churn of a song on “Since I Left to Go.” Haunting background vocals, wailed melodies, and a steady guitar-ukulele strum that won’t let up all create a tension that the listener might be tempted to get through more quickly. But, as the bridge proclaims, “The only way to find a joy / is climbing down into the void.” The song serves as an application of that very idea—climbing down into the less pleasant parts of a journey before real joy can be felt.

The next two songs give repetitions in their choruses that get stuck in your head, which is exactly how they are most helpful—they become mantras for the portage traveler. “You are more than your old mistakes” insists one, and “I won’t live in fear, I refuse” resolves the next. Both songs offer sentiments that I, for one, need to remember, and the melodies attached to these lines are cementing them in my mind for easy recall. “Old Mistakes” whispers reassurance into the entrapment of regret. “I Won’t Live in Fear” hits precisely the moments you want it to—the second verse taking the vocals up an octave, a chorus of voices taking up the cry, and the half-spoken last lines. These two songs are medicine for the weary and afraid.

The last track, “I Need to Be Home,” features sparse piano and a vocal melody weaving a loose rhythm around the triple meter droning from the chords for the first two-thirds of the song. When it opens into fuller instrumentation for a brief moment toward the end, we hear the porter’s resolve to keep marching along the path before him.

The layered textures that Arthur creates on the project through the synths and drumbeats are new territory for his music, and it’s an effective shift. They draw the listener in and add texture and color without distracting from the lyrics. His vocals are gentle throughout, with key moments of angst and passion shining through (listen to “Since I Left to Go” for prime examples).

The EP walks us through the beginning chapter of the porter’s journey, setting his face to the arduous task of getting metaphorical boats overland from one body of water to another. It ends in the middle—he sings, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I’ve been there before… I’m going home.” He presses on, but we don’t yet see him arrive at home. It speaks to how the human life moves toward an end that many of us will not reach for quite some time. It is a resolve to continue, however long it takes. Perhaps Portage, Vol. 2 will take us there, or maybe it will extend the journey. Either way, I’m eager to find out.

Arthur Alligood’s new record (plus his 2015 release The Shadow Can’t Have Me) can both be found at The Rabbit Room. We highly recommend you download them as soon as possible.

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