The Dear Hunter
Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional
Equal Vision Records - 9th September 2016
01. The Regress
02. The Moon – Awake
04. The Most Cursed of Hands / Who Am I
05. The Revival
07. Mr. Usher (On His Way to Town)
08. The Haves Have Naught
11. The Flame (Is Gone)
12. The Fire (Remains)
13. The March
15. A Beginning
After an agonizing six-year wait between Act III and Act IV – which was thankfully mitigated by the ambitious modern classic The Color Spectrum, the solid Migrant, and the intricate Amour & Attrition - Casey Crescenzo’s The Dear Hunter has returned only one year later with the final ‘rock’ album of the six-part story arc: Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional.
While this latest offering does not reach the dizzying heights of Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise - which to be fair was arguably the finest album released in 2015 – Act V is more than worthy as a follow up to that landmark LP, and is yet another strong addition to a peerless discography.
Act V was written and recorded in the same time period as its predecessor, and in many ways it feels more like a companion piece to it than the next evolution in the six-part Act saga. In a recent interview, Casey clarified that while the two albums share many similarities, they each have a unique tone and identity. The distinction is communicated inconspicuously by looking at the cover art for each side by side: Act IV shows a scene just outside the city where the autumnal flora is colored brightly during a sunny daytime backdrop, whereas Act V is a dusky swamp that looks more like the promotional art from Bloodborne. Indeed, Act V is a palpably darker and less welcoming album from Casey than fans will be used to. Furthermore, there is nothing here as grand or celebratory as “A Night On The Town”; V is more reflective and inhibited throughout than is typical for The Dear Hunter.
As is customary, Act V opens with a brief intro track that sets the figurative stage for what is to come. While Act IV’s opener “Rebirth” suggested vitality and a new lease on life, “Regress” instead hints at the inevitable entropy of our eponymous protagonist and leads into the haunting “The Moon – Awake” with a chorus that speaks to his continued shames and insecurities with a plaintive line: “I’d give you my heart if I knew it still was there…I’m too nervous to look, too afraid to close the book.”
Notable in this track is the fitting use of female backing vocals, which Casey has been fond of since Migrant, and which add rich texture and a deeper sense of scale to the storytelling aspect of Act V. This leads into the downtempo and spectral “Cascade”, which is highly reminiscent of the Violet EP, and is one of the finest distillations of what The Dear Hunter is going for with this album.
An early standout on is slow-builder “The Most Cursed of Hands / Who Am I”, which speaks of gamblers, devils, and death. It has the makings of a classic rock track, opening with simple guitar plucking that wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack for O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, before giving way to a twinkly banjo and a stomping full-bodied riff in the second half. The energy is electrifying, and Casey’s voice has never sounded so perfect in the mix. This is particularly evident with the bouncy, old-timey track “Mr. Usher (On His Way To Town)” which benefits from a jazzy bass and piano alongside a swinging vocal performance from Casey and an Andrews Sisters-esque female singing section that takes the early 1900s aesthetic to the next level.
Deeper into Act V we get a one-two punch that is about as good as anything The Dear Hunter has ever produced, in “Light” and “Gloria.” The former is a stripped-down acoustic cut that sounds extremely similar to “The Inheritance” from the Green EP – even down to the thematic similarity of fatherhood – which is possibly the best compliment that can be given to a song, as that is of the greatest songs of the last decade. “Gloria”, on the other hand, is among the most bombastic tracks The Dear Hunter has written, and is simply jubilant from beginning to end. The pacing is masterful and it even has a totally unexpected but fully fitting guitar solo.
The final stretch of the album is nothing that those who are familiar with the band haven’t heard before, but they take longer to reveal their quality and so the initial impression left is not nearly as strong as the analogous stretch of Act IV. There’s also nothing actively wrong with the final third – really it’s quite good – but Act V unfortunately does not exist in a vacuum; it logically exists in a post-Act IV world, and due to its release just a year after IV, it was always going to be a battle for Act V to escape the long shadow it cast.
Ultimately when taken on its own merits, Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional does very little that is new for The Dear Hunter – but while it lacks the immediacy and impact that drove Act IV to the top of our album of the year lists last December, it rewards repeat listens with its subtleties and gracefulness. Fans of the project will be delighted with Act V’s contributions and callbacks to the overarching story and to have another 70+ minutes of diverse, ornate music to pour over time and again.