photo: Angus Borsos

photo: Angus Borsos

Ethan Dempsey

Recently, I enjoyed one of the many mid-twenties rites of passage, and helped clean out my mother’s garage. In doing so, I discovered a yellowed poster of Peter Frampton, in all his swooning Frampton Comes Alive glory. There he stood, guitar in one hand and, for many girls who grew up in the late 70s, their hearts in his other. My mom personally fell in love with the man thanks to his (debatably) iconic ballad, “Baby I Love Your Way.” While the cherubic rock ‘n’ roll teenager that graces that cover long ago faded into obscurity, aging about as well as his poster, the song remains.

Upon hearing the opening lines of “Heartless,” from Sean Nicholas Savage’s latest album, Bermuda Waterfall, I immediately thought of “Baby I Love Your Way.” To say that Bermuda Waterfall is a soft-rock album is reductive, but it definitely trades in the touchstones of the genre. Listen to the pulsing, tubular keyboards that carry the hook of “Empire,” the faux-clave percussion that anchors lead single “Naturally,” and the safely seductive wah guitar that introduces “Hangin’ On,” to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Throughout the entire album the drums are set back in the mix and coated in a soft reverb, as if at any moment a Hall & Oates chorus could break out, complete with handclaps. This is soft-rock for the modern era.

But thankfully, this album is so much more than a soft-rock revival. As many albums of the internet age seem to demonstrate, we now possess the technology to allow nostalgic musical affectations to bloom fully formed in the music we create. Yet our omnivorous listening habits, in the best, most restless hands, can create a unique entity beyond simple borrowed nostalgia. Sean Nicholas Savage may have adopted sonic elements from his soft-rock forebears, but he utilizes them in a wholly different context.

Soft rock is a genre about intimacy. The instruments are pushed back in the mix, and mastered for super smooth contextualization in order to coax the listener in and allow the voice to take center stage. “Baby I Love Your Way,” with Frampton’s full bodied singing, is about the kind of inclusive love that made every girl believe it was their song. Savage’s voice is nothing like that of his smooth operator ancestors. It is a straining, constantly reaching instrument of damaged and lonely emotion. Throughout Bermuda Waterfalls, Savage utilizes the intimacy of soft-rock instrumentation to highlight his bruised isolation. In conjunction with a damaged lyric sheet that refers to “clouds of blood” and “an empire of hate,” Savage’s voice does not invite the listener to an inclusive love, but instead highlights his own growing loneliness and desperation for connection. Savage stands at the center of a vast and indifferent world under a “five-billion-year-old fire,” and he asks the listener, through a consistent directness in song-craft, to stand in isolation with him. We are alone, together.

But such a keen expression of loneliness, especially related as starkly as it is here, would become deeply maudlin in lesser hands. Savage is smart enough to always offer enough perspective and awareness so that the album never dips its toes too deep in the darkness he addresses directly in “Darkness.” Note how “Hangin’ On” sees Savage thankful that his friends ask after him when he misses a party. Such realistic shading is what separates Savage from the cloying of his soft-rock pedigree. In his skilled hands, instead of another trite (there, I said it Mom!) “Baby I Love Your Way,” we are given the brilliant, nuanced “Naturally” as our torch-bearing love song. As Savage’s voice strains, but never breaks, he claims simply “You come naturally to me.” It is a platitude made real, and acutely tactile, in his gifted hands.

There are minor quibbles which keep this album from realizing its full potential. Sometimes Savage seems to lose touch of moving beyond nostalgia and ends up outright aping the form he is attempting to expand (see the so-so title track). And the album, while front-loaded with gems, suffers in the back half, searching for a strong contender until it closes with the strangely haunting “Please Set Me Free.” But ultimately, this is an album of expansion, a clever new turn in a genre I long considered dead. Now if only I could get a poster of Bermuda Waterfall for my kids to find in 30 years, yellowed and fraying in my garage.