Really Early, Really Late by The Declining Winter (Review)

The Declining Winter’s latest album is their finest yet, a stark-yet-lush affair filled with haunting arrangements and lyrics.
Really Early, Really Late - The Declining Winter

Earlier this year, a video of St. Louis reporter Kevin Killeen lamenting the month of February went viral. “February is the worst month of the year, but it’s an honest month,” Killeen declares before offering an array of darkly pithy observations. February “doesn’t hold up life any better than it really is” and is like “something great happened here but it’s over with.” Then there’s my favorite: “Something that’s been bothering you for a long time is out there… you can almost see the shape of it, when all the color is gone and life is stripped down to the starkness of February.”

Killeen’s conclusion? February is “bleak, honest, and it just tells you the way it really is.”

As someone who was born in February, and had numerous birthday parties canceled because of the month’s treacherous weather, I heartily endorse Killeen’s observations. But as someone who (A) has a perennially melancholy bent and (B) experiences a sort of reverse SAD during the bright, warm months of summer, Killeen’s observations actually capture what I love about February. The endless grey skies, bare trees, and near-constant chill can be dreary, but they’re imbued with a melancholy beauty that creates a longing for something no summer day can meet, no matter how bright and warm it might be.

In other words, February was the perfect time to begin listening to Really Early, Really Late, the latest album from Yorkshire’s The Declining Winter — and also their finest album to date. When I reviewed the album’s first single, I said the band’s music possessed an “elegant dreariness” that’s perfectly suited for the stark, tedious days between Christmas and the spring thaw. “Elegant dreariness” may sound like an oxymoron or back-handed compliment, but Richard Adams and his various collaborators really do find beauty in the doldrums through striking, even abstract natural imagery (“Song of the Moor Fire”) and the lush, slow-burning arrangements that characterize songs like “The Darkening Way,” “Project Row Houses,” and “This Heart Beats Black.”

The songs on Really Early, Really Late often follow the same pattern, with Adams plucking out a stark-yet-pastoral melody on his acoustic guitar or spinning up some gauzy, rainswept ambient drift. Additional elements are slowly woven into the songs as they unfold: plaintive string arrangements courtesy of Sarah Kemp (Brave Timbers) and Peter Hollo (Tangents); shimmering guitar filigrees from epic45’s Ben Holton; dub-influenced basslines; mournful horns, clattering and shuffling percussion; and of course, Adams’ own resigned sigh of a voice. The songs eventually achieve a sort of critical melancholy mass before fading away in a haunting fashion.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this sort of musical progression could quickly become dull and tedious, an exercise in monotonous miserablism. But Adams has been crafting this sort of music for nearly thirty years now, going all the way back to Hood’s earliest albums (e.g., 1998’s Rustic Houses Forlorn Valleys), and he’s become very, very good at it. This is particularly evident on headphones, which allow you to really enjoy the songs’ numerous layers and the intricate interlacing of their various elements — especially on the album’s longer, more expansive pieces like the title track and “How to Be Disillusioned.”

Beneath all of the sonic layers, though, is an emotional intensity that belies the music’s melancholy. On “The Darkening Way,” Adams sings of “the cold rainy moor [and] silent hills” before concluding that “I remain there still… with her” — a line that grows in significance once you know that Adams’ mother passed away last April from cancer. Otherwise mopey lyrics like “The classic reach around/The classic bringing down/Is all we know” and observations about “hopeless lives lived in silence” thus take on additional emotional clarity — and even exude a certain sense of compassion.

Really Early, Really Late ends with “…Let These Words of Love Become the Lamps That Light Your Way,” a ghostly ballad that finds Adam calmly (or maybe resignedly, or maybe both) declaring that “The world is sad/We know that/But don’t be scared/There’s hope left.” Mere miserablism this most certainly is not, even as the song fades away amidst the sounds of a thunderstorm. Rather, along with the rest of Really Early, Really Late, it’s poignant in a way that’ll put you right back into a February state of the mind regardless of the season — and I mean that in the best possible way.

The Declining Winter’s Really Early, Really Late is a joint release between the Home Assembly Music and Rusted Rail labels.

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