Safe Away by Denison Witmer (Review)

It might be just what you need at 10:30 on a Sunday night.
Safe Away, Denison Witmer

There’s something to be said for music that’s completely lacking in pretense. I’ve always admired those who are completely willing to forgo any sense of ego and wear their hearts on their sleeve for everyone else to see. Of course, if done poorly, it’s more embarrassing than anything else. However, done right, it somehow resonates with you in a way that’s hard to explain. File Safe Away securely in the latter category. But I didn’t come to that conclusion easily.

Although some might find Witmer’s stripped down and sparse approach to music easily appealing and approachable, it didn’t immediately strike me as such. I kept wanting the songs, which usually consist of nothing more than Witmer’s gently strummed guitar and absolutely normal vocals, to sound somehow “fuller.” It sounded too plain and unassuming. However, as I was listening to this at 10:30 one night, I realized that it was from those exact “weaknesses” that Safe Away derived its strength. It’s a little off-putting at first, because in this day of prefab pop, assembly line electronica, and post-rock artiness, such a willingness to completely shed any persona is a little rare.

The album does drag in places, as Witmer sometimes sounds a little too plain-jane, like those James Taylor songs you keep hearing on FM-Lite stations. And since 95% of the album sticks to the same elements, it is possible for the music to fade into the background. But when Witmer’s music connects, it really connects. On “What Will Stay?,” one of the album’s simplest songs, Witmer taps into a sense of apprehension in a rapidly changing world with lyrics like:

Am I safe?
When everything is going, I’m afraid
When everything is changing, if nothing good has stayed
Am I safe?

It’s something that I immediately identified with, being a twentysomething starting to learn what it means to be an adult and dealing with things I never thought I’d have to face.

Like fellow songster Damien Jurado, Witmer’s songs often deal with old friends and relationships. On “Steven,” he sings that “it’s the best friends that make you/though sometimes they break you.” And lyrics like “I don’t believe in some things like living for myself/And I don’t believe in loving unless there’s someone else” ring with conviction in spite of Witmer’s simple delivery. But my favorite track is “I Would Call You Now”; lyrics like “I would call you now, if I had strength on telephones/I would call you know and say the words to bring you home” are written from the perspective of everyone who has ever wanted to make that certain phone call but could never muster up the courage.

Safe Away is a simple, sensitive recording. And due to Witmer’s ultra-sparse approach, it has that “recorded in the bedroom” feel throughout the whole piece. If you’re a fan of that stuff, of music that cuts to the heart of the matter and doesn’t try to disguise, musically or lyrically, the emotions behind the songs, then Safe Away right up your alley. If you prefer music that has a little gloss, a little sheen, than you might be a little disappointed. But then again, it might be just what you need at 10:30 on a Sunday night.

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