Album Review: Donovan Woods – Without People

Canadian singer-songwriter Donovan Wood’s seventh studio album solidifies the artist’s ability to effortlessly straddle genres of folk, country, and indie while continuing to deliver songs marked by his intimate and understated writing style.

The record largely focuses on the end of a relationship and the heartache and retrospection which comes with such a transition. However, the album’s title, Without People, and method through which it was created — recordings sent back and forth across the country between various musicians who were never able to work together in person — invite the record to be read as a reflection of the pain, loss, and regrets that also mark life in quarantine.

Woods’ manipulation of scale is a sonic focus throughout the record. The album opens with a somber and dramatic violin piece, summoning a grandeur that is quickly contrasted with one of the most intimate and stripped songs on the album, “Last Time I Saw You”. Both tracks are set in front of the sound of conversation, giving the disquieting sense that both the grand performance and intimate moments are being talked over, dismissed, ignored.

The album then turns to the mellow “Seeing Other People”, which along with “We Used To”, “Grew Apart”, and “Whole Way Home”, provides a detailed look into specific moments in the failing relationship. Several tracks have one-line hooks that the songs are built around, this song’s being, “I was okay with you seeing other people, until I saw other people seeing you”.

“We Used To” brings the album’s slower beginning to a more upbeat, poppy place, aided by creative percussion and synth. The album’s first of two duets, “She Waits for Me to Come Back Down” with Katie Pruitt then highlights Woods’ dark and rich vocal tone. The higher-energy songs taper off after “Grew Apart”, the track which most clearly showcases Woods’ country influence.

The album closes with “Whatever Keeps You Going”, a story song with vignettes of different characters who are struggling. After an album marked by its focus on the past, this is the first time Woods gives a message about his views on the future. He doesn’t summon a sudden hopefulness, but rather we should do what we can to get by.

Without People is a catchy, if simplistic, record that reckons with the past and our current isolation. The album’s rich production and arrangement give these folk songs a modern spin and make the album one of Wood’s most compelling to date.

N. Sather