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The artwork illustrating Travels in Lowland, the debut record by The Migrant (aka Danish musician Bjarke Bendtsen) shows a man leaping into the water from a wooden jetty, leaving behind only a guitar, a bass drum, a tambourine and a set of clothes. It’s a stark and simple image, seemingly implying an escape at the end of a long, arduous road, the conclusion of a journey and a spontaneous leap from one’s troubles into simple, unadorned freedom. When you prise open the images, insert the CD and actually listen to the album, you realise that the cover art is apt and appropriate in so many ways. The press release talks about Bendtsen travelling around America with only his guitar and suitcase, absorbing experiences into songs. It’s an alluring premise, a good story, a shot of wistful and familiar romanticism. But Travels in Lowland has something gorgeously different about it. It flows like a half-remembered dream, suggesting that Bendtsen has opted to keep his eyes, his mind, his heart and his soul joyously open while walking his many miles. In terms of its ability to spread grit inside the shell of the oyster and somehow conjure up an overwhelmingly powerful, striking sound from such simple arrangements, its nearest comparison is Arcade Fire’s Funeral. And while Travels in Lowland is doesn't come up to those levels of brilliance, it still stands out as one of the most endearing, touching and memorable records of 2010.
It is an album that drops gifts on you like leaves of autumnal melancholy, falling forever, glorious melodies and sweeps of instrumentation blowing like wind across your face. From the opening majesty of ‘The Organ Grinder’ to the closing, campfire crescendos of ‘You Think You Know’, Bendtsen mines a rich seam of quality, seldom hitting upon stony ground. Starting from the stunning pinnacle of the aforementioned opener; drenched in showers of longing, perfectly weighted by intelligent instrumentation and blessed with an unexpected choral explosion that is simply jaw-dropping, the album proceeds to float along a river of broken acoustics, fluttering woodwind and crucially, scratched infusions of lo-fi guitar and feedback. The latter aspect is a defining quality of the record; it saves the folksy segments from becoming too whimsical and helps to fortify the tracks so that the integrity of the album can hang tautly from its skeleton.
A perfect example is ‘Beans’. Initially leading off into an (albeit pretty) land of confusion amid plucked strings and odd lyrical ruminations on, er, beans, the whole thing suddenly dissolves into a quite astonishing cacophony of screeching strings and feedback; akin to Broken Records and The Velvet Underground wrestling with each other in an orchestra pit. At times it is pretty and glowing (‘Lullabye’, ‘Nothing But Clues’); at others it is dark and brooding (‘Back To You’). But apart from the under-explored meanderings of ‘Don’t Turn Tidal Wave’, the standard of the entire record is of exceptional: nearly every track is memorable and immediate. The whole thing concludes with a remarkable coda, sounding a little like a Hope of the States and Explosions in the Sky acoustic collaboration around an open fire. A simple recurring motif is broken up by a sky-opening bellow of acoustic guitar and vocals, blending seamlessly with delicate swells and ebbs of guitar. It’s a subtle, intriguing closing track; yet somehow fitting as a conclusion to this album of continual and pleasing surprises.
At the core of Travels in Lowland is a natural human intimacy: the desire to be loved, to explore and to make sense of the world. It succeeds precisely because it doesn’t force itself upon you. It spreads its charms out before you and lets you gently discover for yourself the magic that can be found within it. It is both catharsis and exaltation; loss and love. To create an album of such intrinsic warmth is incredibly difficult to achieve; so many times you see this tender fragility to be crushed by overwrought strings or misguided producers. That Bendtsen manages to sidestep this is worthy of the most fulsome praise: this is an album where the beating heart prevails over the questioning head, each and every time.