It’s increasingly rare that a band takes much time between albums anymore. The punishing late-capitalist inertia of the music industry and the internet generally means that musicians stay locked in a semi-annual cycle of recording, releasing, touring, and doing press, ostensibly until they either quit or die. But that’s not the case for Mountain Man, the trio of Molly Sarlé, Amelia Meath, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, which now loosely calls Durham home. After eight years, Mountain Man is not only stronger than ever, but they achieve it through songs that are striking in their softness.
On Magic Ship, Mountain Man is essentially doing the same thing it was on 2010’s Made the Harbor: three women sing in close harmony with each other, mostly unaccompanied but for occasional acoustic guitar. Magic Ship is sharper and clearer than its predecessor, with Sauser-Monnig, Sarlé, and Meath boasting more confident vocal presences as individuals and as a group.
Most of Magic Ship‘s songs concern themselves with nearly invisible truths of inner and outer lives. They range from the literal, like the spiders weaving their webs in “AGT,” to the metaphysical, as on their stirring rendition of the traditional tune “Bright Morning Stars.”
Throughout the record, finely attuned listening yields the greatest rewards. The singers unite in ringing harmony, but individually, their voices are equally remarkable. The trifecta of talent makes for inimitable rapport, with Sauser-Monnig’s light, flexible voice forming the connective tissue between Sarlé’s powerful, assured articulations and Meath’s lower, lightly smoky croon. Peeling apart the three vocal parts of “AGT,” for example, feels like following three different white rabbits toward Wonderland.
These songs are quiet to an almost alarming degree—playing them at full volume, you can hear birds and frogs offering their own vocal contributions on a couple of tracks. At the conclusion of “Whale Song,” you can even hear a whispered exchange between two of the singers: “That was nice.” “Yeah.” In fact, the only song that ever approaches being loud is “Moon.” Sarlé’s soaring lead vocals slice through sturdy acoustic guitar strums, and the trio’s refrain of “Die, die, die” feels more like experiencing a haunting than listening to music.
Magic Ship‘s central tenets also include comfort and tenderness, manifested in songs like “Underwear” and “Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning.” The former begins with Meath’s plea for “a chill pair of underwear,” while the downy edges of the latter make the song live up to its title. “Guilt” feels like a lost missive from Mister Rogers, serving as a gentle reminder that such angst is universal. “It can just be something that happened that way that makes you who you are today/And it hurts, but that’s all right,” Meath offers in closing. It’s not a prescriptive resolution, but it’s soothing nonetheless.
Magic Ship is a marvel of intimacy, manifested in the trio’s musical chemistry as well as its close focus on its subject matter. When the women affirm the simple comfort of well-worn clothes or assuage the anxieties of everyday human calamity, they offer a momentary break from whatever looming chaos tomorrow might bring. And that feels pretty magical.