In his short story, “The Child Screams and Looks Back at You,” Russell Banks (that lucid conjurer of memory and redemption), addresses the nature of the state of forgiveness, protection and grace we bestow upon those we love, particularly family. In doing so, he zeroes in on the essence of the tired cliché, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” His take? “If you don’t know what you’ve got when you’ve got it, you won’t know what you’ve lost when you’ve lost it.” In his hands, what could sound like “therapy literature” cuts to the quick of parental loss and grief.
It’s into the same heart of tenuous innocence, spirals of family ties, love and loss that former Detroit-area resident Rosie Thomas peers, all clear-eyed but impressionistic, on her debut album, When We Were Small.
Here are 10 snapshots of the past mingling with the present in the mind of someone who won’t let herself stop moving forward, but merely pauses to let the memories say hello to one another and renew old acquaintances. The quiet reveries are simply lovely and ever more disquieting upon repeated listens. Over primary soundbeds of piano, acoustic guitar and cello, Thomas invites the listener closer with classic singer-songwriter rising-falling-resolving phrasing, and the dynamics of an extrovert looking inward to find the sounding board of her memory.
Interspersed throughout the recording are sound snippets of a family at play and the CD booklet has snapshots (of that family?) with handwritten dates and notes. This is the context in which we hear the happy-heartbreak of “2 Dollar Shoes” (the opener and “liveliest” cut here) and “October.” A shoebox full of photographs under the bed. Well-creased letters you haven’t read in too long, revisionist diary entries.
Sometimes, when you let your guard down, you can hear the cold-weather, bittersweet voice of Gordon Lightfoot seeping through Thomas’ tunes.
Elsewhere there’s the clear-eyed, accepting luminosity of Sarah McLachlan. (What is it, a Canadian thing?)
It’s lovely and disquieting in the same way as realizing you’ll have to eventually let go of the hand you’re holding or the one that’s holding yours.
E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected].