Port St. Willow: Holiday

Music Reviews
Port St. Willow: Holiday

This all starts a ways back. A year ago, Port St. Willow self-released their debut LP, Holiday, with the album slipping by largely unnoticed. The record itself marked a new beginning, as Nicholas Principe—the solo multi-instrumentalist behind Port St. Willow—had moved from his home back east to Portland, Ore., where he worked a service job and slowly laid the tracks of cascading pain and searching beauty that would compose Holiday. And before Principe could craft his song cycle of breaking away and coming out lost, there was the impulse that drove him to strike out West in the first place.

“I will be set free,” Principe sings, one of very few repeated lines in Holiday, the tracks forgoing traditional hooks and choruses and building instead around the tension between Principe’s snow-melt falsetto and flumes of stratified percussion.

Holiday’s weighty tempos and plaintive vocals invite immediate comparisons to The Antlers’ Hospice and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, yet both of those works were tied to a troubled moment in time, terminal illness and the dissolution of relationships, agonizing circumstances to be endured, dealt with and moved beyond. Holiday, on the other hand, finds Principe confronting a young man’s struggle to free himself from forces that rarely diminish: family, self and the daily burden of getting by. The conflict of water against rock—the conflict of being in the world—the same beginning of beauty, terror and awe that inspired Rainer Maria Rilke to write: “Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe.”

I will be set free…

Holiday begins in departure, tunnel noise and city buzz and family chatter left behind for the martial percussion of “Hollow,” the title underscored by the foregrounding of voice and drum as Principe sings “So save the advice, it’ll only be a bother/ in a year spent making peace.”

Throughout Holiday, Principe complements his articulate, swinging drum patterns with surging keyboard lines, reverbed guitar, synth oscillations and mournful touches of trombone and French horn. The patient layering of each discrete element and the way the intros of each track initiate amid the coda of the previous piece calls to mind The Album Leaf’s In A Safe Place, and like that album and Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun, Principe captures the sense of interconnectedness and open space that can—within the same gasp—manifest as something both wondrous and overwhelming.

Instead of oversharing or co-opting the listener with personal specifics, Principe accentuates images of births and burials, oceans and bends, armor and boxes, half-lives and the desire to slow breathing and movement and time. The album doesn’t work out pain in song but rather releases pain through song, flinging the emptiness out into the spaces we breathe. In keeping with the understated, meditative quality of the lyrics, Principe pushes his voice to notes of particular emphasis but conspicuously avoids the acrobatics that might otherwise attract attention: rarely does anything so lovely appear so unassuming. Vocally, perhaps the closest point of comparison to Port St. Willow would be Patrick Watson’s sincere and (for him) restrained guest turn on The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home.”

Midway through Holiday, during the subtle and affecting couplet of “On Your Side” and “Corners,” Principe all but disappears completely, the shifting “you” he’s directed toward both himself and an other becoming the address used by those he left behind.

“What’s the matter?
You say you’re leaving?
You hold yourself when I talk to you”

The ability to see himself through the eyes of those he’s distanced from, the ability to recognize the way that physical separation sets new cycles of ache and strain into motion, these empathetic qualities keep Holiday from ever coming across as inward or self-indulgent. No one is declared guilty and no one is blameless.

Though Holiday functions as a thematic and structural whole, there are discernable highs in the latent anthems “Amawalk” and “Tourist,” the former rising from a resonant keyboard progression and the latter riding a hypnotic, approaching/retreating drum loop. Both songs have the potential to swell into something absolute (or even overblown), but Principe restrains the tracks with the same self-effacing uncertainty that makes the entire album so compelling.

In the here and now, through the common combination of hard work, talent, personal connections and luck, Holiday reached the right ears and earned a formal re-release. Completing another cycle of sorts, with something vulnerable and personal moving out into a wider, more unforgiving ecosystem. As an added extra, the re-release includes a 25-minute, four-part suite—“Soft Light Rush”—which flows neatly from the end of Holiday. The original song cycle closed in more of a détente than a resolution, and “Soft Light Rush” begins with the sounds of gifts being opened at a family celebration—less a festive return than someone alone watching home movies—and progresses through Satie-inspired piano figures and propulsive drum and synth sequences, again reiterating themes of conflict and confusion and distance.

“Anchor me a holiday,” Principe sings in “Soft Light Rush,” seeking both grounding and escape while echoing an olive branch offered in “Corners,” where the family promises the door will always be left open: “We can be your anchor.” A place that at once offers what he wants and what he wants to leave behind.

I will be set free…

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