Album Review: S. Carey – Break Me Open

“In Break Me Open, I confronted darkness, I wrote about fear, I looked at love from different angles, I left it all out on the field. These past couple years have been the hardest of my life: full of grief, loss, and change. I feel like I had two choices. I could run from life, turn away, grow cold, resort to drugs, run and keep running. Or, I could give myself a deep look within. I could dig deep where the pain lives, where fear is festering, to try shed a new skin and come back a better person. Everyone is so far from perfect.

This is not a “divorce” album. And while going through that has shook me to my core, leaving me at times, wondering who I am, and where to go, this record is bigger. Change is good. Fucking hard, but good. For many, to say the last two years have been difficult would be an understatement. Stress and uncertainty about life in general, family, friends, kids, even Mother Earth has grown exponentially. There is a heaviness to human consciousness right now, a darkness at the surface.”

You can hear pain and darkness in Break Me Open, S. Carey’s first album in four years. This may not be a “divorce” album, but you can tell from his own descriptions that everything isn’t quite alright. 

The album starts with ‘Dark’; plaintive and brooding, and full of the grief and loss that he talks about in his opening quote. Carey’s solo releases are very much from the Bon Iver conservatory. The long-standing Bon Iver drummer has been releasing solo music now for more than a decade, and although Break Me Open is Carey’s fourth studio album release, the production and style of his music is reminiscent of early Bon Iver; and as Bon Iver has diversified, Carey has stayed close to that early sound. 

‘Starless’ also comes from this sombre vantage point. Carey sings the “We’ll never get this back…the Earth is all but dead”, in a call of hopelessness and fatalism at our foreseeable ruin. Plaintive and sparse, he often uses atmospheric production with soft woodwind and violins as the backdrop to his songs. On listening, I imagine being transported to a remote pine forest in springtime. You’ve woken up, alone. The ground is still frozen in the early morning and a bright but impotent sun gradually rises on the horizon.

In the same interview, Carey goes on to say: “Break Me Open is about love – past, present, and future. It’s about fatherhood – the overwhelming feeling of deep love for my kids and the melancholy of watching them grow up right before my eyes. It’s about accepting my faults and wrongdoings, exposing myself, and trying to know myself better than I did the day before. But above the darkness, it’s a message of hope, honesty, and growth. It’s a call to be vulnerable: Break Me Open.”

The feeling of hope overriding darkness that Carey talks about is just about audible. To me it feels like he’s singing out of catharsis more than hope. And that isn’t to say that this is a depressing album. ‘Sunshower’ brings in electric, rhythm guitars with trundling and building snare drums to an uplifting outro, and is probably the best track on the album. ‘Break Me Open’ encapsulates the feeling of being broken and built back again stronger, led by a single repetitive note on the piano, swelling into a positive and expansive chorus. It’s about loss and love and resilience. ‘Crestfallen’ (excusing the bleak song title) is an optimistic ending to the album, although it starts out mournfully, it gradually builds to a brilliant crescendo of synthesiser, saxophone and violin.

S. Carey’s output is always captivating, and whilst this release doesn’t move any mountains, there are gems in here like ‘Break Me Open’, ‘Crestfallen’ and ‘Sunshower’ that will certainly make their way into my “Sunday morning vibes” or “Alone in the forest in spring when it’s still cold” playlists.

Anthony Warrington