Finally Free is Daniel Romano’s third album of 2018, after a pair of Bandcamp-only releases the Canadian singer-songwriter posted in January. One, Nerveless, was full of strong power-pop hooks with a rootsy flair. The other, Human Touch, leaned more toward somber ballads with close vocal harmonies from musical collaborator Kay Berkel. Finally Free doesn’t have as obvious a focus.
Romano’s latest features nine shaggy tracks that tend to meander into dead ends, as if he chiseled out rough song forms and didn’t get around to honing them before he started recording. Apart from piano on two tracks by Berkel, Romano played all the instruments himself. He has described these tunes as “my most accomplished and honest musical output,” which is a bold statement for a guy who has released 11 full-length albums since 2009. It’s also a claim worth questioning.
Sometimes Romano manages to pull off an unexpected success: a repeating thinly strummed acoustic guitar chord and quavering vocals at the start of “Empty Husk” eventually build to a catharsis of overdriven electric guitars and a vibrant melody. More often, though, these tunes just idle. A loose arrangement of whirring organ and gruff guitars on “The Long Mirror of Time” vaguely calls to mind the Grateful Dead’s country phase, and the psych-folk tune “Have You Arrival” stretches past six minutes where nothing much happens: pretty acoustic guitars move in endless circles as Romano stacks up layers of his voice singing lyrics that are, well, let’s say abstract, at best. “Celestial Manis” gives the distinct impression that Romano overdubbed each instrument by memory instead of listening back to the track in progress: a melodica part wanders past guitar noodling that seems unconnected to anything else going on, while jumbles of shakers, tambourines and hand drums come together like sonic bleed from competing hippie campsites. Here, as elsewhere on the album (and in his other recent work), he sings in a nasal, reedy tone that sells his voice short: he sounded warmer just a few years ago on his 2015 album If I’ve Only One Time Askin’.
Whatever else Finally Free is—psychedelic-folk odyssey, stream-of-consciousness experiment, “lucid plea” or “final apology,” in Romano’s words—it’s also merely the latest entry in an increasingly divergent career. Given the pace of his output, it won’t be long until he’s heading off on some other musical tangent, and then another one, until Finally Free seems like a momentary blip.