The Black Swans’ “Don’t Blame The Stars”
“Its roots can be traced to the early country records of Willie Nelson (especially Yesterday’s Wine) and Bob Dylan’s forays into the genre. Yet, The Black Swans turn country inside out by combining amicable whimsy with grim seriousness.” – Grafton TannerSean Pritchard
out of 10
The Black Swans
Don't Blame The Stars
May 31, 2011
Noel Sayre, master violinist of The Black Swans, passed away during the recording of Don’t Blame the Stars, a haunting rumination on death, mental illness, and addiction. His presence permeates the album. It bends and croons and never quite erupts in the mix. Instead, it twines itself with Jerry DeCicca’s thick, old-country-made-new baritone. Both express enormous emotion without ever belting out a refrain or exploding in saccharine display.
This subtlety is one of the reasons why Don’t Blame the Stars is a masterpiece. Its roots can be traced to the early country records of Willie Nelson (especially Yesterday’s Wine) and Bob Dylan’s forays into the genre. Yet, The Black Swans turn country inside out by combining amicable whimsy with grim seriousness. It’s a strange amalgam of light and dark, a contradiction that comments on the inner workings of the mind. The Black Swans welcome you in with their warm introductions then present before you their host of specters.
Don’t Blame the Stars feels more like a series of vignettes or snapshots of The Black Swans’ consciousness. Several songs are paired with introductions that function more as frames rather than explanations. They give boundary and weight to these snapshots of mental instability and loss. “Intro to Mean Medicine” makes light of DeCicca’s visit to his doctor about “something funny going on inside [his] head.” He mentions how the doctor says he resembles Abraham Lincoln. Yet, “Mean Medicine” focuses on the malaise of drugs, the exhaustion of shifting states of sanity. DeCicca sings like he’s already separated from himself while the music under him trudges along slowly. It is terrifying in its sluggishness and subtlety, as if we are waiting for DeCicca to laugh it all off and call himself Honest Abe. He doesn’t.
The title of “Sunshine Street” sounds airy and bright, yet its subject matter deals with loss and alienation. “One day, I went missing,” DeCicca admits on “Intro to Sunshine Street.” It is a song about the allure of being the missing one. The feeling is attractive: to disappear from the world and hide across town or within the subconscious. Like “Mean Medicine,” it’s an honest declaration of DeCicca’s detached mind and a pivotal moment on the album.
Coupled with the grim moments on the record is The Black Swans’ playfulness. Famous names are dropped, DeCicca gargles a solo, and there is talk about the satisfaction one gets when “taking a pee outside.” The whimsy reminds us that there is humor somewhere within the absurdity of life, that to laugh it off means to cope with heartache. However, The Black Swans take no stock in finding truth and guidance in a higher entity. “Don’t Blame the Stars” sums up the album with its hook: “Don’t blame the stars for what we can fix with our hands.” The power is in our hands. The power to choose, to say, “Wait, no I don’t want to be here.” Man is the ultimate decider, the one to differentiate between the good and bad and take them both. The Black Swans sound like an artistic collective coming down from the mountain, having endured great suffering and now wiser after the event.