It’s been a hard week.
I expect I’ll have the opportunity to say that a lot over the next four years, and I promise not to take every one of those opportunities. But I’m worn down. I’m angry and sad and feeling helpless. I know there will be plenty to do, plenty of ways to stand up and be heard and make a difference, and I’ll be right there in it. But every day there’s a new reason to despair, to feel like there is a darkness descending on us all.
And so we persevere. And some of us write silly music columns to get through the week. It’s fitting, then, that the first album I have been breathlessly anticipating in 2017 turned out to be about living through difficult times, and what it takes to carry on. It’s no wonder that I’ve responded so well to it, given my frame of mind lately. In fact, I’m about ready to call it 2017’s first great record.
I’m talking about In the Passing Light of Day, the tenth album by Swedish band Pain of Salvation. You may not have heard of this band, but they’ve been one of the mainstays of progressive music for 20 years. They’re led by a golden-voiced savant named Daniel Gildenlow, and as of this album, he’s the only original member of PoS remaining. Pain of Salvation has always been his show, though, a vehicle through which he creates massive concept albums of deeply personal music. And he’s never created anything quite as personal as In the Passing Light of Day.
This is the first new Pain of Salvation album in six years, and if you’re wondering why, Gildenlow lays it out for you in his liner notes: he was hospitalized for months in 2014 with a flesh-eating bacteria threatening his life. During that time he had a hole in his back deep enough to expose his spine, and underwent a series of chemical treatments that eventually sent the bacteria into regression. He’s been recovering since, and looks remarkably thin but much healthier than you’d expect in the photos that accompany the album.
In the Passing Light of Day is all about those four months, and the recovery period after. Gildenlow sums up its theme in his notes: “I did learn a lot. I did not, however, learn that I need to spend more time with my family. I did not learn that I should spend less time in life worrying and stressing. I did not learn that life is precious and that every second of it counts. No, I did not learn these things, simply because I already knew them by heart. We all do. Our priorities do not change in the face of death, they just intensify. We get reminded of them. Suddenly, painfully, honestly, we remember how to live.”
This is an album about remembering how to live. It’s dark and bleak in places, and so honestly and powerfully written that it moved me to tears, particularly the mammoth closing title track. Gildenlow exposes his soul as much as his spine here, and spares us nothing. “I was born in this building,” he begins on the opening track “On a Tuesday.” “It was the first Tuesday I had ever seen. And if I live to see tomorrow it will be my Tuesday number 2,119.” The song sets the scene – most of In the Passing Light of Day takes place in Gildenlow’s hospital bed – and the tone: “Will I change? I honestly can’t say, I have no promises to trade for the lord of come-what may, to provide me with another day, every promise that I make is a promise I might break…”
“Tongue of God” is extraordinarily frank, Gildenlow repeating “I cry in the shower and smile in the bed” while asking God to heal him with a kiss. “Meaningless” finds him calling out connection, sinking into loneliness, while the nine-minute “Full Throttle Tribe” balances details (“I turn the shower tap, turn it all the way up to burn this hole away”) with broader ruminations (“This has been my tribe, my family, this has been my flag and nation, this has been my creed, my legacy, now it’s only me…”) “Reasons” sinks to the bottom, awash in anger and recrimination.
He begins the long crawl back in “Angels of Broken Things”: “Fallen angels spread your wings, fly me across the seas of burning things, pills and needles, tears and stings, fallen angels save me from these things…” He decides he wants to live in the whisper-to-scream “If This is the End,” which slides into the 15-minute title track, possibly the best song Gildenlow has ever written. The passing light of day is our lives, here one second and gone the next, and he starts the song lamenting his own ephemeral nature: “You’re watching me slowly slip away, like the passing light of day.” He relives his regrets: “All those times when I failed you, all those times when I turned on you, I wish that I could take them back… because all those times are still here today, all those moments return today…”
But as the song continues, he’s made new, and it’s beautiful. His fear of death disappears, and his love of life returns: “All that matters is here today, all the thoughts that I think today, every word that we say today, every second alive today.” He ends the album accepting his own mortality: “And though I wish that I could stay, it somehow strangely feels OK, it is what it is, I’ll find my way through this passing light…” The song builds convincingly over its running time, and by the end, Gildenlow is giving it everything he has. The emotional catharsis is palpable.
I haven’t even mentioned yet what this album sounds like, so powerful are its lyrics and themes. It’s always a question – Pain of Salvation began with four very good yet unoriginal progressive metal albums, and then went crazy with Be, one of my favorite records ever. Be is a treatise on God and man, with song titles like “Imago (Homines Partus)” and “Lilium Cruentus (Deus Nova),” and its music aims to be all music, a hundred styles sitting next to one another. From there they embraced rap-metal on Scarsick and gritty ‘70s rock on the double album Road Salt, and went acoustic for Falling Home.
In the Passing Light of Day is billed as a return to their aggressive sound, and that’s partially true. “On a Sunday” begins with jackhammer riffs and explosive drums, and songs like “Reasons” are stripped-down metal. But there’s a lot more going on here, in the catchy vocal samples of “Meaningless” and the piano of “Silent Gold,” and especially in the operatic sweep and emotional power of the title track. This is a big-sounding album, although much of it feels raw and stripped back, and it’s louder than PoS has been in some time. But it’s reductive to call it metal, or even prog-metal. As always, the band adapts to the song, bringing to it whatever it needs, and this new Pain of Salvation is as nimble as the last incarnation.
We’ve seen a lot of final records, written with the knowledge that death is imminent. (The two most recent of note are David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.) I’m not sure I know of many other near-death albums, ones written at the brink before stepping back from the abyss. In the Passing Light of Day is the best one I can think of, a moving, difficult and ultimately rewarding journey to the edge and back. It’s the year’s first triumph, and just the parable of perseverance I needed. I’ll be listening to it for a long time to come.
Next week, what I wanted to do last week. After that, a roundup of January’s new releases. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.