The last of the few albums that Hayden Arp has released is a live album from last December, Communion, which he "performed in the dark … in Fairchild Chapel." A 15-track record, it features early versions of the songs that comprise his new EP, and even as Arp has left that dimly-lit, spiritually-laden space for more traditional recording venues, much of the atmosphere of the original work remains.
Beautiful and elegiac, For Gabriel is the kind of music well suited to a stone chapel in small-town Ohio where light seeps in through stained glass windows. Like church music, it swings between moments of intimate whispers and grand swells of euphoria, each resonating at different but equally powerful frequencies. Building on a foundation of folk, Arp adds in different shades of chamber pop—two-plus-part harmonies, lush strings and other compositional textures—and electronic touches that create a rich, dimensional space in his music, as if each voice is still bouncing off of those tall stone walls.
Religious music is a fitting comparison beyond tone; while Gabriel functions primarily on the level of mood and atmosphere rather than narrative, each song seems to contain some nod to the theme of wrestling with spiritually. In the opener, “In the Fading Light,” the singer paints a scene with crunching sound effects and a quiet guitar line that explode into noise in the middle, singing, “In the fading light / We walk through heavy snow / And we are coming home … I think we’re lost now.”
The second song, “Curving World and Arcing Sky,” returns to the theme of loss and a distinct sense of setting with poetic lyrics such as, “When we left that day / I heard him say / To keep this place / Inside our bones / Yet I felt it fade.” In “There Are Voices,” Arp explores the intangible voices that he sees “in the windows” and feels “in the breeze,” couching a repetitive hymnal structure in a heavy, electronic-tinged Americana track. Finally, in the title track, the theme emerges more explicitly: “And all that I want to believe / Is that there is a home outside of these bones / For you and me,” he sings, returning to a whisper after an anguished verse.
In that line from “Gabriel,” and throughout the EP, Arp has a knack for making the very large and unknowable very small and concrete—forming tiny love stories of spiritual questions (a habit he shares with Sufjan Stevens, who he sometimes resembles in sound, too). Through complicated compositions, bursts of noise, and abstract stories, it’s a skill that keeps the whole album tight, personal, and away from the dangerous realm of platitudes. A gorgeous and original work, For Gabriel leaves you wondering when (and from what haunting spaces) Hayden Arp’s next music will arise.