David Karsten Daniels
Fear of Flying
(Fat Cat; 2008)
By Traviss Cassidy | 1 May 2008
David Karsten Daniels’s humbly brilliant Sharp Teeth (2007) was an easy album to overlook in a banner year for acoustic folk. Whereas the genre’s more talked-about ’07 highlights could boast an exciting angle (You Follow Me’s impressionistic drum work, The Cloud of Unknowing’s virtuoso 12-string fingering, or even For Emma, Forever Ago’s cabin-bred intimacy), Sharp Teeth was just an excellent collection of familiar-sounding folk songs about familiar themes—joy, fear, and disenchantment with religion, among others.
Fear of Flying, Daniels’s second album on Fat Cat and fifth overall, is even more unassuming than its predecessor, expanding upon the hushed moments of Teeth while mostly eschewing its cathartic, immediately gratifying moments. Patience is a must here, though it often pays off: highlight “That Knot Unties?” creeps along at a whisper for a couple minutes before slipping into a blissful, sun-baked daze punctuated by Daniels’s always-emotive “oh oh”s. Likewise, “Falling Down” and “Martha Ann” seem pretty unremarkable at first, but repeated listens reveal them as two of the album’s best pop songs, the former with jubilant sax-led choruses and the latter riding a spiraling melody buoyed by some great female backing vocals. Unfortunately, though, Flying’s more deliberate pacing does get a little soggy after a while, and the album could have benefited from the type of mood-breaking catharsis that “Minnows” and “Beast” provided on Teeth.
Whereas Sharp Teeth’s lyrics tended to wander down whatever dark road Daniels’s mind stumbled upon, Fear of Flying is far more cohesive thematically. Nearly every song deals with a facet of growing old—just one of the many common fears Daniels has written about, sure, but he treats the topic delicately and often insightfully. Perhaps his greatest success here is in showing how we often feel the effects of old age long before reaching the twilight years ourselves. “The Caretaker” poignantly illustrates the difficulty of caring for a senile relative: “So we watched her turn into a shadow of herself / While she spewed at you all the darkness that she felt.” People often experience renewed religiosity—or at least renewed curiosity with religion and the hereafter—when they become elderly; Daniels has already shown a penchant for tongue-in-cheek blasphemy with Teeth’s “Jesus and the Devil,” and he repeats with “Oh, Heaven Isn’t Real,” a less-then-subtle jab at organized religion given weight by the southern plantation hymnal style in which it’s sung. In the context of the album’s conceit, the song might be taken as a slap in the face to those suffering as much from naivety as from brittle hips.
Elsewhere, Daniels paints a more hopeful, albeit conflicted, picture of the aged’s wrestling match with religion: on “That Knot Unties?” he asks, “When you close your eyes, will you step into the sky?” and on “Martha Ann” he sings of “a choir of angels’ light that you can bathe in.” Whether due to his own doubts or fear of the Unknown, Daniels isn’t quite ready to scratch God out entirely; on “Evensong” he puts the Lord’s Prayer to music almost as a penance for his wavering faith. The existence of God, like old age, is a topic Daniels isn’t about to trample on without respite, which is just as well for his listeners: we get both the furrowed-eyebrows doubts and starry-eyed hopes from a man who, through his wavering convictions, can’t help but create something as real and human as death itself. It’s a noble pursuit, one that imbues the album with a sense of purpose that was somewhat lacking on Sharp Teeth, but one that also may have led the troubadour a little too far down the path of homogeneity; creating an album with a unified purpose shouldn’t necessitate picking out its more disparate musical strands, but here Daniels has honed in so tightly on a drowsy classic rock aesthetic that I’m left missing the scruffy variety of last year’s effort. Here’s to hoping ol’ DKD can bang out another bold statement like Fear of Flying without trimming those musical wings too short.