This might just be the best Radical Face album yet. Believe me, as a fan of Ben Cooper’s music for over a decade, that statement doesn’t come lightly. Truly an emotional journey from start to finish, The Leaves will stand out as one of the most moving albums of the year. For those of you counting, it’s the third and final installment of the Family Tree saga that began just over six years ago. The project was a series of interconnected albums that follow a fictitious family through history, each song told through the eyes of the story’s characters. Full of tragedy, adventure and triumph, the Family Tree is a complex and rich narrative that has evolved into a collection of 44 related songs that evoke feelings of mystery and wonder. If you’re interested in seeing how all these songs tie together, visit radicalface.com where an interactive map will help guide you through the Family Tree’s complicated storyline.
The Leaves has everything we’ve come to expect from Radical Face—honest lyricism, swelling strings, intricately-layered vocals—and so much more. It finds Cooper experiment with new sounds and sonic structures, while incorporating synths, wind instruments, drums and even the occasional electric guitar—which comes appropriately packaged in reverb. This mix of both old and new comes together in a hauntingly beautiful way. Ben’s knack for layering gives every song a feeling of depth and complexity that warrants multiple listens to truly appreciate all of its intricate details. One of the most striking things about this album, though, is how often the songs shift from highs to lows. It’s here, in these moments of contrast that we as listeners encounter an overwhelming feeling of isolation.
Though this album completes the trilogy, it is much more personal than the previous two records. Leaving his fictional friends behind, Cooper assumes the role of a narrator for some of the songs. In our recent discussion with the man himself, Cooper revealed that there were some things he had to come to terms with, and the idea of hiding behind a character felt dishonest. For that reason, these songs are autobiographical confessions of a sort that help us better understand how he dealt with the darkness that has plagued his life for the past year. It’s no more apparent than on “Everything Costs,” which seems to be a song for his niece, whom he recently adopted.
While Cooper is no stranger to melancholy, this latest album feels much darker and more emotionally-involved than his previous records. Though tragic, it reminds us of the importance of kinship. There are many examples of this throughout the album, but none serve better than closing track “Bad Blood.” Here, he sings “It took a river of bad blood, but now I see where we came from / Can’t grow a proper branch when half the trunk is rotten.” With these poignant lyrics, he paints a sharp and painful picture of the struggles he’s faced, keeping in mind that there may be plenty more to come. But while it’s a tragic end to an altogether tragic story, it makes for a fitting conclusion.
Ben has always been able to capture vivid stories with his lyrics (and this album is no exception), but one of my favourite things about The Leaves is its instrumentation. Many songs, such as “Rivers in the Dust,” are rich in guitar and drums, while others are entirely free of vocals, as is the case in “Photograph.” Ben has described these intricately-layered passages as his attempt to communicate ideas without the use of spoken word. Instead, he uses them as a form of sonic storytelling to recreate the feeling of a dusting off an old photograph. And, as far as I can tell, he’s done just that.
Objectively speaking, the only complaint I have about this album is its relatively short run time of just 40 minutes. Though this isn’t an unusual length for a record, it is noticeably shorter than Cooper’s previous records, which will leave many of you wanting more. However, when you consider the fact that we ended up with an extra volume of The Bastards, the length of the record is much less of a concern. In fact, if you include the Bastards Volume 4, the run time is closer to 50 minutes. Overall, this is one of the most emotional and multifaceted albums of the year and I would recommend this record to anyone who enjoys listening to folk or indie-rock music. For those of you that are already fans of Radical Face, you will not be disappointed with this final instalment in the Family Tree saga.