If you’ve seen Sean Carey make music, chances are good that it’s been in his role as drummer and pianist in the live incarnation of Bon Iver. And given the role of extensive vocal harmonies in Bon Iver’s music, you might also assume (in this case, correctly) that Carey’s voice is not too far removed from lead Iver Justin Vernon. All We Grow is a melancholy record, abounding with drums, piano and haunted vocals. It’s a close cousin to Carey’s work elsewhere, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More notable is the fact that it’s Carey’s debut as a solo artist and, as with many first albums, the moments where it stumbles emerge out of a lack of stylistic focus.
Carey is clearly a talented vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, and the songs on which he’s able to bring these skills together make for All We Grow’s most memorable moments. “Mother” is a melancholy tone-poem of a song, the bulk of its vocals contributing wordless harmonies; as a result, the lyrics that do emerge have a tendency to resonate even further. “In the Dirt” is an upbeat, piano-driven slice of chamber pop. Stylistically, it begins as the closest we get to Carey’s other gig before a minimalist section halfway through shifts the emphasis from layered vocals to pulsing woodwinds. There’s a cohesion that runs throughout the album: the slow-burning end of “Mothers” transitions seamlessly into the crackling interplay of percussion and guitar that opens “Action.” Carey does seem to be thinking conceptually on the album level, as opposed to the level of individual songs, which makes for an overall consistency.
That consistency isn’t flawless, however. Carey’s music is at its best when it sprawls. The closer he gets to more traditional singer-songwriter fare, the less interesting All We Grow becomes. The muted “In the Stream” is arguably the most traditional composition here, and while it proves that Carey can write a melancholy pop song, it also feels slight compared with the more ambitious and textured songs on display.
Listening to the work heard here, it may be a bit premature to file Carey’s work beside some of the musical touchstones suggested by his record label’s press corps (Bill Evans, Talk Talk), but it does suggest a good start and a solid grasp of the spaces that can be created by music. (The filled-out scope heard on “Broken,” which closes the album, is perhaps Carey’s best demonstration of this.) But the few places on All We Grow where Carey seems to shortchange his own ambition suggest a more worrisome potential direction; one hopes that his future work will be more, rather than less, idiosyncratic.