In a scene dominated by the gentle, hypersensitive sounds of Sufjan Stevens, The Welcome Wagon and Fleet Foxes, Jon Foreman and Sean Watkins finally inject some manliness back into the acoustic guitar.
Fiction Family, the culmination of two of our generation’s most prolific and respected songwriters, debuts as a masterful collection of tales about murder, adventure, lost love, and war that highlight each contributor’s strengths and personalities while managing to defy perceived expectations.
There’s a beautiful carelessness to this project—a work birthed out of rest, friendship, and unabashed innovation. With no immediate deadlines, rules, or formats to follow, Foreman and Watkins embark on a musical journey of the purist, most unadulterated kind. The album keeps one foot in the folk door (a familiar home for both artists) while audaciously messing with everything from techno beats to ’60s pop choirs to fisher price instruments. While the acoustic guitar remains fixed in the foreground, a symphonic cast of unlikely characters join the conversation. Chamber stings, tympanis, accordions and electric fuzz tones somehow manage to play nicely together. A few of the most arresting tracks replace traditional bass lines with resonate piano timbres, dark pounding drones that duel eloquently against intricate finger-picking patterns.
There’s an idea that the farther one departs from the traditional pop format, the less tangible their work becomes to the average listener. Not so with Fiction Family. Wildly inventive and spontaneous (track two entitled “Out of Order” sounds exactly how it reads) the work stands in victorious defiance against a crumbling conventional music industry. Hooks and phrases linger long after their first introduction, and are sure to induce an involuntary foot-tapping episode or two.
It’s the stories, however, that give the project a sense of timelessness. In the spirit of his Season EPs, Foreman channels cultural staples like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, even various Motown voices, conveying raw acoustic narratives like “Betrayal” and “War in My Blood” that read straight out of a great American novel. Watkins attaches his expertise for the hauntingly sorrowful love song that, in his case, always seems to relay more familiar truth than angsty longing. “Elements Combined” sketches the complexities of a woman, an intoxicating mixture of “earth, air, fire, and wine.”
But it’s not all love and war for the Family. Both Watkins and Foreman wrestle with the spiritual complexities of human nature. On “Closer Than You Think” the two critique the widely held notion of heaven as a distant and out of reach destination and suggest it may be “right under your feet.” In traditional Foreman lyrical style, “Prove Me Wrong” is laden with tender screams for affirmation and acceptance as it contemplates every man’s darkest struggles and fears through a solitary voice.
Those who have eased into a level of comfortable enjoyment of Jon Foreman’s solo projects and Watkins’ bluegrass repertoire may be caught off guard by the duo’s progressive departure from the predictable. Those looking for Switchfoot meets Nickel Creek will be disappointed. This is truly a profound exploration deep into the creative wells of two tremendously inventive and forward-thinking songwriters. Fiction Family is genius. It’s progressive without being high-brow, laid-back but fearless.
CJ is an artist, writer, and cultural commentator with a passion for raising a new generation of innovative artists and forward thinkers.
To download a free mp3 of Fiction Family’s “When She’s Near Me” please click here.
This article was printing in the March/April issue of Rethink Monthly magazine (issue #6).