Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
Philip B. Price excels at delving deep into the psyches of the people in his songs and emerging with vivid, often dreamlike images brimming with complex emotions. He’s been doing it for 15 years at the helm of Winterpills, the Northampton, Mass., chamber-pop group that has released six full-length albums and an EP since 2005. Yet Price was honing his craft long before Winterpills with bands in Western Massachusetts, Upstate New York and southern Vermont, and as a solo artist. He’s back on his own with Bone Almanac, his first solo album since 2004 and one on which Price played every instrument.
It’s a record full of interior worlds inspired by an exterior one in peril: Price says he’s reluctant to call Bone Almanac his “climate change emergency album,” but only because he suspects it won’t be his last fitting that description. Yet despite the urgency he feels, his latest is never dogmatic or doctrinaire—Price isn’t one to harangue listeners with holier-than-thou rhetoric. The 14 songs here are enveloping and poetic, and though Price mentions rising waters and smoke-filled lungs, it’s in a metaphorical context that alludes to the climate crisis without beating you over the head. Quite the opposite: Price’s music seeps in on a subtle tide of melancholic vocals and layered musical arrangements full of acoustic guitar playing that can be surprisingly deft. Turns out he is decidedly underrated as a guitarist, considering the speed and finesse he demonstrates in the delicate fingerpicking on the wistful, longing “Whiskey Bells” and the sterner, more slippery parts that echo the vocal melody on “Crow Mocks My Wings.”
There’s often a folky feel to the songs on Bone Almanac, which range from spare combinations of guitar and voice to rich blends of electric guitar, drums and keyboards. “Blue Wolf” spans the full range. Price sings a lead melody in clear, quiet tones, layering ghostly harmonies as he picks out a resonant acoustic guitar part, augmented here and there with deep piano chords. The song builds into a climactic section where he intones the refrain (“I am one blue wolf”) amid a stack of guitars, piano and swirls of wordless vocals. Elsewhere, “C’mon World” tends toward lush, opening with strummed guitar and vocals and then refracting into a stutter-step drum beat, followed by an ascending acoustic guitar line and, on the chorus, reverberating electric guitar accents. Price sounds disconsolate as he sings about the lives we construct that are reduced, after we’re gone, to “a couple of postcards / Or an empty can of Coke in a graveyard.”
The weight of memory is a recurring theme. On “The Liar,” Price’s narrator collects someone’s ashes and scatters the letters they left behind, while on the terse, tumultuous “Severed,” he demands to know, “Who were you, whose son?” Toward the end of the album, on the quietly kind title track, Price offers a refuge, a place to lay down the pain, regrets and secrets that accumulate over a lifetime. “You can stay there forever,” he gently repeats over a bed of incandescent intertwined acoustic guitars. There’s an excellent chance you’ll find a lump in your throat by the end.
In that glimmer of compassion lies the all-but-buried kernel of hope at the core of Bone Almanac. Price, who has two adult daughters, recently became a father again, which means some form of hope is practically mandatory because the alternative is so bleak. Even amid the potentially dire consequences of a warming planet, Price hasn’t given up on the possibility, however faint, of changing direction. “You can make another kind of world,” he sings on opener “Holding on to Light.” It’s at once a suggestion, a mandate and a fervent wish for a future worth bequeathing to those for whom we, too, will be only memories.