In the world of Sean Carey, the background is the foreground. The 28-year-old songwriter has a degree in classical percussion from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his talents have been on display as the drummer and backing vocalist for Bon Iver since 2007. He’s meant to be a part of the backdrop in that band, but even when he’s supposed to take the lead—as he did on his solo debut in 2010, All We Grow, and his 2012 EP, Hoyas—Carey places the emphasis of his music less on his voice and more on what he can create with his hands.
Carey’s music is not a big leap from that of the band that brought him notoriety; he and Justin Vernon share the same expanded definition of folk music. The biggest difference between Carey and his fellow Wisconsinite is that Carey is more interested in the landscape rather than the lyrics. On Range Of Light, this has a very literal meaning, as the album title comes from naturalist John Muir’s description of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the songs were inspired by the American West. Musically, it implies that Carey puts more of his energy toward the backing sounds usually thought of as supporting cast rather than main attraction. Everything in opening track “Glass/Film” moves in perfect synchronicity, like the gears in a clock, clicking away with beautiful, machinelike precision. Tapping percussion mimics the sound of falling rain in “Creaking,” and the circular pattern of acoustic guitar turning over beneath the gorgeous “Fire-scene” gives the feeling of a train in motion. He sings on all of these songs, but that’s never the focus.
It makes sense for Carey to assign a higher level of importance to the stuff in the background: He’s better at being a musician than a frontman at the mic. He has never been a bad singer, just not an especially compelling one, but he’s improved his technique on Range Of Light. His timid whisper of a voice seems emboldened by a new confidence, and there are more moments than ever before where he lets it have some of the spotlight. “There’s a rise ahead/But I’m ready,” he sings on “Radiant.” Where Carey’s instrumentation is clean yet complicated, his lyrics are lived-in and simple. On “Alpenglow,” he asks, “I was wondering if you’d be my wife/Be the compass in my rugged life,” while he confesses on “Fire-scene” that “All I want is honesty.”
Over nine songs, Carey crafts a number of bright, warm, sweeping moments that fit with the album’s theme of the American West, land of exploration and possibility. He packs his ode to the land into standalone postcards laid out in no particular order, rather than in an unbroken narrative. And while there’s no denying the beauty in Carey’s music, sometimes you notice the absence of a sturdier shape, one that comes through stronger hooks and lyrics. He’s got the background thing all figured out, but it’s high time the guy who’s used to sitting in the back and tinkering invested some more time in his foreground work.