It’s hard to get a read on Christopher Mansfield, the creative force behind Seattle native Fences. To look at the tattoo-clad singer-songwriter, your immediate impression might suggest mumble-rapper, God forgive me. My mother never told me not to judge a book by its cover and, honestly, it shows. What I had predicted would be an exploration into gen-Z angst turned out to be something else entirely. Some of the most vulnerable, wistful indie folk I’ve heard in some time.
Fences has mastered the blend of happy-sad folk artistry that brings to mind a highly-produced Bright Eyes, or Death Cab For Cutie. It’s no coincidence that the all-star cast responsible for production on Failure Sculptures features Chris Walla, of Death Cab fame.
It’s in this production that the album really shines. Formed by Chris Walla, Jacquire King (Of Monsters And Men) & Ryan Lewis (one half of the Macklemore phenomenon), the status of these three musicians feels so richly deserved on this record. Often, the songs might lack a dynamic to keep the listener’s interest, or they would, if not for the subtle but complex ambience shimmering in the background. Simple, vulnerable guitar songs are transformed by an ambient undercurrent carrying the songwriting boat down the river.
My favourite case has to be ‘SAME BLUES’, a song that finds all its positive points in stripping down the musicality to let hard-hitting, forlorn lyrics breathe deeply. Simple but not boring, very much credited to the gorgeous guitar tones and droning bass.
There’s deep melancholy in every song. Sometimes worn bare, sometimes hidden under catchy, nursery-rhyme melodies. Like a haunted house painted in pastel colours, it can almost feel disingenuous. The sincerity and vulnerability behind much of Mansfield’s lyricism feels insecure under tracks like ‘PAPER ROUTE’ or ‘GOD MUSIC’, like it’s smiling too hard when it tells you it’s okay. Not that this is the first case of a sad song with a happy melody. Morrissey’s entire career exists, after all.
Every criticism I could nit-pick out of the album feels forgiven by the next track. When Mansfield’s consistent vocal tone began to grate on me, in comes guest vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala (best known for The Mars Volta & At The Drive-In) to paint a whole new colour in ‘BRASS BAND’. When I feel like the album is for a lazy Sunday, ‘THE PARK’ gives top-shelf indie-folk groove and solid rhythm to keep it flowing.
Not to say that a few of these tunes couldn’t join your easy-listening playlist. ‘WAR KID’ asks little from its listener without being boring, its dynamic peaks like a soft incline on your Sunday drive. If you’re engaged, you’ll find quality lyricism everywhere you look. If you’re not, who cares? These songs are so welcoming, they demand only what you want to give.
Like Mansfield himself says, “It has everything in it. It could read like a will”, and that’s true. This album ties so many threads together that one wonders why it isn’t incoherent? Why each song works so well against each other? You could work it out if you were so inclined, but the simple answer is to give credit to Chris Mansfield’s songwriting. Put Failure Sculptures on while you cook. Play it in the car. Pour over it with the lyrics in your hand. It’s an album for everyone and a credit to truly excellent modern songwriting.