harrowing yet hauntingly beautiful The Backward Path, Melchior pays tribute to his wife Letha
while trying to make sense of the impermanence of life.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“This album is for Letha,” says the back cover of The Backward Path (Northern Spy), the
most personal and introspective Dan Melchior album yet. Letha, if you haven’t
been following along, is Melchior’s wife and sometime band member, who has been
struggling with cancer these last couple of years. The two of them have been
engaged in a draining battle against health insurers and medical
establishments, drug providers and the deadly disease itself. There is a very good article about exactly how
daunting the last two years have been for them at Indy
Week, and if, after reading it, you feel that you want to help, there is a PayPal account set up to defray
Letha’s medical expenses.
Melchior wrote and recorded The Backward Path during a time when his wife was becoming
increasingly sick, a time when it must have become clear that he might lose her.
As a result, the album is very serious, at times, quite sad, and also touched
by a kind of mysticism. There are seven
instrumental interludes tucked between verse-chorus songs, which seem through
abstraction, muted noise, fleeting bits of beauty, to suggest the impermanence
of life and the possibility of transcendence.
The songs in between are also full of existential angst –
though leavened with a dark humor. “I have known the emptiness,”
sings Melchior. “It wasn’t my kind of thing. It made me nervous with its lack
of jokes.” Yet as he faces this emptiness,
here and elsewhere on the album, he can’t seem to stop himself from cracking
wise. Who else, spinning abyss-ward in a “Dark Age Tail Spin” would stop to
wonder where his copy of The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks had gotten to? Who
else, in contemplating the rush from past to future would pause to ask,
venomously, if a few bullet trains and the internet were all we were going to
get from the future?
Melchior is serious even when he’s joking, but he turns
especially, brutally, so late in the album, on “Waves.” The song is, musically,
layered and beautiful, full of space-wandering electronic blips, ghostly traces
of blues guitar and piano, strangled bits of C. Spencer Yeh’s violin. The
sounds themselves come in waves, one running aground, another rushing over it,
the next gathering itself just out of hearing. Melchior sings over all this,
contemplating the emptiness lying
ahead somewhere and the exhausting struggle it will take to get there. “Still
you want to breathe, you don’t want to shut down, you don’t want to get buried
in dead thoughts,” he murmurs.
Backward Path is a lovely, extremely moving demonstration of
exactly how a person can go on, not ignoring what’s going on, but not being
beaten down by it either, and continuing to make art from the rawest of raw
Letha Melchior Rodman Cancer Fund: http://melchiorfund.blogspot.com
Happy Hospital Funtime Blog! http://lethashappyhospitalfuntime.blogspot.com