Oh Holy Fools: The Music of Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes, released earlier this year, was filled with eight heart-baring pop/rock songs, four from each group, which completely and beautifully captured longings for love, hope and meaning in this sad, crazy world. “Kaite Come True”, Son, Ambulance’s final contribution to the album, is one of the most genuine emotional releases in pop music so far this year, an intensely gorgeous call by Joe Knapp, the group’s singer/songwriter, for a dream lover to materialize and save his life. The ten songs on Son, Ambulance’s first album all to themselves, Euphemystic, match those four both in songcraft and heart. Knapp’s view of life is a romantic one, filled with hope, but his songs wear a sad sort of optimism, one always marked by the knowledge that the world can deliver pain and suffering at every step.
“I was born and I died, happened right before your eyes / And you still wanted something more than silence out of me”, Knapp sings at the album’s start, immediately launching into the world of human interactions and feelings. That territory is at the core of his songs. The viewpoint is nearly always that of someone with an emptiness inside, searching for meaning behind all of life’s challenges and changes. Completeness is sought through human connection, meaning that life is inevitably filled with disappointment and uncertainty but is also supported by the knowledge that peace, comfort and a sense of home are possible and the hope that someone will, as the song goes, take some time out to love.
Son, Ambulance’s music has stark piano and guitar suited to the rawness of the material, but also a fullness and complexity of style indicative of the fact that Knapp isn’t a solitary man hiding behind the name of a band. Though Knapp’s songs are the focus, Son, Ambulance is a band, with four talented musicians. They create a sound that sticks close to the songs by matching every shift in mood but is also filled with interesting textures, including jazzy and psychedelic touches. They’re also willing to play around, often stumbling into moments of joy by doing the unexpected, like layering spoken and sung vocals in “Seven Days”, briefly dipping into a famous children’s television theme song to complement the message of “I Promise You’ll Never Grow Old” and throwing in touches of Latin music in “Maria in Motion”.
The latter track feels like the lyrical cousin to “Kaite Come True”, as both are calls for help from a person who is described as both real and unreal. If the theme of looking for a savior of some kind is prevalent throughout Euphemystic, the idea of finding the real in a world of shadows is even more so. “Is the closest thing to real life in a sunk cave behind your eyes?” Knapp asks on “An Instant Birth”, matching the search for something genuine with the romantic thought of finding home through human connection.
The album’s final track, “Violet”, carries this search for love on one last time. Continuing Oh Holy Fools‘ precedent of two stunning closing numbers, “Violet” is the second of two beautiful piano gems. This one, however, transcends its status as just a pretty piano ballad by slowly building up a sincere intensity. Starting by describing the aftermath of a car wreck, the song grows in depth as Knapp’s lonely, trembling voice is joined by Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and the two swing the song from shock and despair into a passionate wish for love, a pure, selfless blessing: “I made this light to give to you no matter what you do/I’ve beeen shoring up these words to pour like rain like peace upon your perfect head”.
With a poet’s imagination, a loner’s melancholy, a dreamer’s wide-eyed romanticism and, ultimately, a lover’s generosity, Knapp has lended Euphemystic the feeling of home. From the six-minute lushness of the opener “An Instant Death” through Knapp and Oberst’s inspired duet at the album’s end, Son, Ambulance has created a musical space that feels both comfortable and unerringly real.