#12. Adam Haworth Stephens – We Live On Cliffs
Unfortunately, much of my countdown this year consists of artists I already knew before. There were a few who were new to me (Pterodactyl Plains, Flying Lotus, Sleigh Bells), but mainly it was a good year for people I already liked. There were, though, some debut albums, by artistst who decided to step out and go solo. Adam Haworth Stephens is one of them. Stephens is the lead singer/guitarist in the intense and atmospheric blues duo, Two Gallants.
I cannot quite figure out why, but I’ve been having trouble coming up with much to say about We Live On Cliffs. (So I’ll just ramble.) It isn’t like the music is terribly extreme. Nor is it bland. There is a complexity to Stephens’ songwriting here, which I guess can make it hard to process. With Two Gallants, Stephens taps into the blues and comes up with new songs that feel amazingly authentic. It is quite a skill for a modern songwriter to have. On We Live On Cliffs, though, the blues influence is much more subtle, and the songs are much more laidback. The rawness of Two Gallants feels like it has been smoothed out, which as a description, sound terrible. But once you get into the songs, it is still there.
I reckon that the “cliff” metaphor used in the title of the album is key to many of the songs. The idea that taking a step will cause a sheer drop. Living on the edge can also leave you directionless. These are but some of the themes buried in Stephens’ songs here. On the stunning “Heights Of Diamond,” Stephens sings “‘Cause your touch still lingers on my shaky fingers / As the feeling fades away / And the bells are chiming / In the heights of diamond / As I’m trying to find my way.” Here he is, at a very particular moment, and he is not sure where he’ll go. Off the cliff? It’s possible. There are different cliff edges throughout, as well: reality vs. dreams, night vs. morning, life vs. regret. On “Southern Lights,” Stephens writes, “you know the sweeter the candy, the bitter the aftertaste / So don’t let the morning catch me here / I’m not the man that I appear.”
Anyway I feel like I just have a pile of random thoughts about these songs, which I’m sure undermines the complexity of his language, the chill melodies, the talented band. We Live On Cliffs is a skilled work by one of the top songwriters around. It is as if Stephens dug around in the blues with Two Gallants for a few albums, processed all he could, and now is finding his own style. Perhaps it is a natural progression for a songwriter to go from exploring a favorite old genre to absorbing it into your own style. Many great artists follow a similar path, like Bob Dylan or Beck. High comparisons, I know. But Stephens is moving forward in his songwriting, and I can’t imagine it dropping off a cliff.