Pete Uhlenbruch, the man behind the moniker Owls of the Swamp, populates ATLAS with charming poetics. Though the record offers an enjoyable ticket down a floating, earthy rabbit hole, Owls of the Swamp’s latest release is sometimes bogged down by its own passivity and veers into lackluster lands.
However, much of ATLAS is the stuff of fantastic dreams. Uhlenbruch’s imagery evokes feelings of impermanence and the timeless effort to find, maintain and harbor love. His guitar playing is gentle and places a strong emphasis on subtle shifts in tone in a mode similar to Nick Drake or Iron & Wine.
Those understated and sometimes unexpected key changes give an impression of utmost melancholy. On “Shelter,” Uhlenbruch sings in an almost-whisper and waxes poetic about the process of constructing a protective place with his nameless other. “Last night I dreamed a dream/of smoke in the distance and ash on the wind,” he sings to close the track, projecting his shaky beliefs about resisting the elements for the long term.
On “Going Home,” Ulhenbruch muses about his lost map and lost compass, overwhelmed by how far he feels from “home,” his elusive final destination. He tries to operate by the light of the moon when all else fails. The sorrowful plucking that draws the curtain on “Going Home” contains a meager tinge of silver lining.
The overarching theme of journeying that is omnipresent on ATLAS is one that the writer seems to be both romanticized and cursed by. Ulhenbruch’s album is defined by this dichotomy. On “Water Song,” he admits, “I’m both part of the ocean and part of the sky/…/I’m part of the day and I’m part of the night/…/I bring both pleasure and pain.”
Owls of the Swamp does almost too good of a job exploring whether or not the journey is the destination, whether the magic that the unattainable holds is meant to be understood.
Ulhenbruch seems poised between the fear of knowing the truth and a wicked passion to never stop pursuing his next station.
While much of ATLAS is made pleasant by touches like the male-female vocal dynamic and the lulling rhythmic pace, it’s difficult to say that the album is particularly exciting. Owls of the Swamp builds an elegantly simple sound, but too often, moments meld together to become indistinguishable from others. This winding at-ease-ness can lead listeners’ interest astray and into some boring territory.
The natural world that Uhlenbruch constructs with wild words and atmospheric instrumentation feels a bit like the still but charged air that accompanies a storm. It’s hard for the listener to tell whether the bad weather has been braved or is only about to begin.
Owls of the Swamp – ATLAS tracklist:
- “The Hypnotist”
- “Closer Now”
- “The Fall”
- “Water Song”
- “Going Home”
- “Grandfather Clock”