Songs of baptism and communion

Something about Montreal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson's latest album reminds me of a scene in Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning film Moonlight (2016).

Juan (played by Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes an unlikely father figure, takes little Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert) out to the sea.

Bobbing in and out of the water, Juan guides Chiron through the currents and, eventually, the latter lies and stays afloat, the former cradling his head, like a priest would a newborn child.

Such is the richly cinematic mood Watson evokes in his band's sixth studio release, aptly titled Wave. His band's name is Patrick Watson.

Just like the above scene, the songs are as much baptism as communion, riding the line between danger and faith, dream and reality.

They are sparser, but also more elusive. After all, a wave can knock one over and wipe everything in a blink.

It comes as no surprise to find out that during the making of the album, he lost his mother, his drummer left the band and he separated from his partner. "It's the difference between singing a solo at a stranger's grave as a child and singing one at your mother's funeral," Watson said in a statement.

  • CHAMBER POP

  • WAVE

    Patrick Watson

    Domino

    4 Stars

How deeply broken his heart is, but at the same time, he tries his darnedest not to wallow in unremitting grief. The songs are his refuge, keeping him safe and sane.

"Never thought you were leaving/ I never thought I'd have to start again," he sings, in the opening song Dream For Dreaming, each syllable almost swallowed in the numb whiplash.

In The Wave, tossed about in a tsunami of galloping percussion and crashing synths, he promises: "Just to take your time/I'll see you on the other side."

The words are adrift in fluvial synths, percolating dips and the drip-drip-drip of drums.

Watson's limber voice radiates immense sadness, but also warmth.

Quieter ballads such as Strange Rain belie micro-earthquakes. "Don't feel like talking 'cause the weather doesn't ask me why/But the rain feels nice," he sings, almost half-speaks.

Broken, likewise, is tethered to an insistent piano hook, as he laments the death of his long-term relationship. "We tried everything to save our love… Did we dig too deep?" he asks, never once sounding embittered.

A flicker of new hope illuminates the woozy R&B ballad Turn Out The Lights. "So we rise/Into the arms of a gentle breeze," he sings sweetly, miked close and double-tracked.

This is mirrored by the surreal romance of Look At You, piano and synths braiding as his falsetto scales the ether: "There's a shimmering light in the back of my mind… I think it's just the way that I look at you."

By the time one arrives at the heart-stopping closer Here Comes The River, he has come to terms with the ineffable.

Strings swell and subside, leaving behind soft piano plinks which limn the eventual understanding: "Sometimes, you got to burn to keep the storm away."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2019, with the headline 'Songs of baptism and communion'. Print Edition | Subscribe