David John Morris – Monastic Love Songs
Hinterground Recordings – May 21, 2021
“When did I start to hold / Is my stomach tight in taut folds?” / Was I just trying to hide / From the infinity I felt inside ”- New safe
Every now and then an album will resonate with you right from the first line or the chord. The secret to this is not always so easy to understand. It can happen with anything. A few years ago, I became a little obsessed with Armelle Brusq’s documentary Leonard Cohen: Spring 96, shot during the third year of the songwriter’s five-year retreat at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. Caught between the office, studio, and monastery, the film stumbles upon Jikan (Cohen then ordained under his Dharma name, meaning Silent One) and finds him meditating, washing dishes, taking calls, rummaging. in the refrigerator, uncovering only old pickles; the general daily.
So often harassed by the media’s preconceptions about him, there is something different about Spring 96. Speaking openly of sitting down with the unbearable mess of life, “in the very bonfire of this distress (until) you are burnt and they are ashes”, Cohen expresses to him how, poetry and song are the clarified, “Beautiful fine-tipped ash” of experience. Playful, profound and yet also considered in light of the allegations that would later be made against his teacher Sasaki Roshi, it is as if we are witnessing the screen of his lifelong self-quest.
leading us to David john morris‘solo debut Monastic love songs. Known for leading the boundary-pushing folk-rock group Red River Dialect, Morris’s lyrics are “a blurring of the outer and inner landscapes.” The constitution of his home country, as Cohen would say, vividly evoking his natural environment. They’ve always come from a deeply spiritual place, but they never sounded like that. With these quivering introductory lines, the record opens, and over the course of its ten songs, “like a lily in the heat”, it continues to open even more.
After the sessions Welcoming ghosts galore, in October 2018, Morris made the decision to move to Nova Scotia to spend nine months at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Not knowing if he would write songs again, he was ordained a monk and swore to live by the precepts, which included not playing instruments. In May 2019, for one hour a day, Thaye Chosang (Buddhist name for Morris) had access to a guitar called Malibu Barbie (not a Buddhist name I believe). In June he had an album. One fateful day in mid-July, joined by musical heroes Thierry Amar and Thor Harris, never having played together, they followed the record during a 10 hour session at Hotel2Tango.
Amar & Harris are probably best known for respectively providing the punch behind the legendary experimental rock groups, Godspeed You! Black emperor and swans. However, they were also guest stars on some of the best singer-songwriter records of the early 21st.st century. Recalling their work with Bill Callahan, Devandra Banhart and Vic Chesnutt, the Monastic love song their playing matches the inquisitive tone, complimenting Morris’ Kōan-like verse. Their accompaniment is subtle and fiery, with Harris’ textural additions of brushed kit, tuned percussion and harmonium, and Amar’s lyrical, improvised double bass lifting these songs, allowing the narratives to breathe.
Traditional Rosemary Way (popularized by Carthy, Briggs and Yorkston) sparkles in life, the rousing acoustic / bass interaction is only overcome by the soulful skitter of Smile inside, which closes the albumen in the glorious style. Choppy notes envelop Morris as he sings “Thank you, Hollis” in thanks to his Tai Chi teacher, as he celebrates the impossibility of being, dancing with a free hand. Elsewhere, the trio skillfully move between the choppy dynamics of brooding Skeleton key, Morris confronting the Tibetan concept of ‘Bardo of Becoming ‘.
However, it is New safe, the first single and the opening of the album, which initially sparked my interest and best represents the subject of this album. Sarita McNeil’s music video takes us to the heart of this Canadian winter. Our gaze is directed towards the thaw of the great lakes, the curved fir trees and the decorative glasses refracting the sunlight, toasting the extraordinary in the ordinary. On a swell of Buchla synthesizer, brushes, buzzing piano and bass, Morris asks the question, “The ocean has no enemies / There is nothing bigger than it / Written on a piece of paper / A five year old said so – was it then? ” which seems to haunt the listener for the duration.
New safe evokes a mood similar to Micros in 2020 by Mount Eerie songwriter Phil Elverum. Featuring accompanying images of Elverum curating a collage of early Polaroids, this self-mythology stripping disc found the songwriter contemplating his past in his signature stream of consciousness style. Bittersweet and centered around an evolving acoustic model, Elverum’s attempt to move beyond desire and the general sense of acceptance is closely reflected in Morris’ ‘spiral of experience’. Yet despite all the lightness and equanimity of Monastic love songs, there is an equal current of discordance.
Buddhism claims that all phenomena coexist and here the human condition is explored in all of its contrasting complexity. The gentle meander of Closed tells of a clash of personalities that then blossom into an unlikely friendship. Meanwhile on Circus cart, one of the album’s most touching songs, Morris examines the patriarchal violence that recently plagued his Shambhala community. Recalling the imagery of Joanna Newsom Monkey & Bear, Morris looks for the right words, “I asked for freedom and freedom came / I broke the wheels of praise and blame / The circus wagon collapsed / I thought it was my chariot” as he reconsiders his faith.
So, you might be wondering, in the words of Buddhist superstar Tina Turner: “What does love have to do with this?” ” Now, number one, there’s a feeling of devotion evident here. Monastic love songs honors both the time spent and the lessons learned at Gampo Abbey. Morris has clearly fallen for much of the lifestyle and principles adopted. It could also refer to the curiosity and kindness with which he approached these songs as well. Like the Zen puzzles of yesteryear, love can be slippery.
In the last moments of Spring 96, the High Priest of Pathos compares the art of songwriting to collecting rags. It encourages patience and persistence when finding your pockets “To finally find something that you can inhabit and that will change your mind about yourself. Change your heart. And create a man around this song. Monastic love songs stirs with that same transformative promise. “It is what it is. This is what great glory is ”, he continues with a half smile, “I think we should finish.”
Monastic Love Songs is released on May 21, 2021.
Pre-order via Bandcamp: https://davidjohnmorris.bandcamp.com/album/monastic-love-songs
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