The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers

The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia

(Bu Hanan; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 28 November 2007

I don’t have to tell you, ya know, that as a music critic I get, like, a shitload of promo albums in the mail. Stacks of cardboard slips and cracked jewel cases begging to be indulged; I sit on the rug in my bedroom and my world is walled in by the ephemera of a New Digital Age. World as such, it’s only logical to be so discerning with USPS stock. I have to be picky (and I deserve to be picky…). I’m a busy person, and I only have so many 50 minute periods in one day.

So, when long, garrulous titles catch my eye and then harvest my eye as I ponder the implications of such a long string of nouns and modifiers and ampersands, I’m bound to take that promo out of the flock and listen to it. That’s the basic sketch of how I came upon The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia, the sophomore album from Perry Wright lovechild The Prayers & Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers. I totally listened to it.

Two facts, bang boom: TP&ToADS is a collective with Wright as singer/singwriter, Alex Lazara as producer and etc., and a revolving cast of musicians; the song titles are also long and esoteric. These beget three assumptions that prove to be true: Like Godspeed or, ugh, Bright Eyes, a concept album seems a reasonable conceit; Arrangements will be meticulous with a jones for bombast; the lead person (Wright) will be smart enough to stand behind and defend the pretentious front of fancy words. In case you don’t think so, I’ll leave the explication for Perry and Alex themselves. I totally read that shit.

You may have noticed that Wright seems to know his philosophers and has an active grasp on major concepts and arguments. Some of his ruminations and lyrical constructs are fascinating, like when he describes “Above the Waves” and relates a mid-week passage in Genesis to the endless creation and destruction and design inherent in human cloning, applying that to the unifying concept of a marriage in shifting crises, and it all makes sense somehow. Really, it does. Strangely then, when Mother of Love’s lyrics never reach the clarity or curiosity of his explanations of the lyrics, despite however many ideas he packs into one sentence. There’s my largest disappointment with this disc; I admire a writer (Wright’s definitely one) who can find the sublime in simplicity, but most of his verses straddle the fence between morosely cliché and obtuse. The beginning of “Ontothanatological” goes, “If our ship went down / And spilled us out / Would you think of me / And smile as you drowned?” after implying something “the size of a fist” will break in seeing “you” in an earlier song, and then closing the album with lyrics like,“Raise up, you celestial choir / You’re always running out of words to say,” and a song about a love affair. Healthy intuition will lead a listener toward threads of relationship issues, religious allegories dueling with metaphysical semantics, and even Modernity and social decay. Which is why this all sounds self-absorbed.

Which is why I thought “Ontothanatological” was about the alienation of a person in modern society and the necessity of self-absorption for survival. Turns out that’s not really the case. So, something was lost in the lyrics, which happens often on this album, and even though Wright encourages subjective listening, the conceptual weight that couples with his dripping voice at the front of most mixes leaves me befuddled. And that Appendix is a whole ‘nother beast.

Ya see, I thought up this funny nick-name for the band. It’s “Death Cak-ak For Cutie/Family.” Not only does this nifty alchemy of proper nouns help me sort this record out from the promo landfill, but I think it (safely) characterizes the Prayers & Tears sound. Wright isn’t as completely obnoxious as Ben Gibbard, and his lyrics aren’t as overtly terrible, but his timbre resembles the indie darling’s and his dramatic heft is anything but subtle—as the Broadway bridge in “Above the Waves” demonstrates, complete with crashing voice crack. Then, like Akron/Family’s debut, the songs of MOL have a soothing consistency, using some tracks as mood pieces or transitions, and then breaking the bare crawl for moments of obliterating glory. Perhaps chided by his Gibbard superego, Wright ascends to heights with a fatness of sound, as opposed to Akron’s pared, reluctant, anthemic approach. Still, the opening track is the perfect apotheosis, I think, of this album’s intentions.

“The Eventual Intimate of So Much Nostalgia,” first establishing itself as a minor key acoustic dirge, explodes and rawks with guitars, drumkit, Rhodes, and violin, all mostly compressed until the speakers split. It’s exhilarating, and Wright’s voice still maintains a silky thickness through tricky terrain. For the following 50 minutes, each track retains a similar aesthetic aim, either wandering through synth and theremin and all manner of aleatoric noise with a hushed vocalist, or BLAMBLAMBLAM-ing with insane cymbals and loud, fizzling drum loops. The jambalaya works, though, and it becomes a reward to pick through the elusive umbrage of it all. Things may get predictable in a late 90s “post-…” kitschy kinda way, and you may find yourself ready to scream at Wright and Lazara to just lay off, but not all turgid epics can sound this unabashedly and effortlessly Epic.

Oh, and then there’re “Rotation of Crops” and “Ammunition of a Bolt-Action Heart,” both of which stomp out all the other songs on the album and both of which do it mostly on the back of a fantastic violin melody. Plus, “Ammunition” could have easily replaced anything on You Could Have It So Much Better and lifted that mess up an echelon or two.

In the end, the promise of The Prayers & Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers doesn’t exactly live up to the depth of the songs. That leaves the promise for a future release. Besides, the ambition and execution of the band’s ideas are enough to charm even the most sedate, desensitized critic. Like me, the one whose opinions you demand, whose opinions you trust, even when I make up gross hyperbole to quell the acid of defeat caused by a lack of proper musicianship. In other words, I got the pretty packaging. I’m wrapped tightly in sparkles, baby. Fuck what’s inside, pretty packaging’s enough to swivel heads.