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Saintseneca – Dark Arc

Named after a first-century Roman philosopher, fronted by a lean ginger Nietzsche (as rich in lip-hair as meditative wit), and knee-deep in the theses of Descartes and Sartre, Saintseneca splash around in something of a metaphysical melting pot.

The Ohian quartet walk ponderously down that trail blazed by bands like Modest Mouse and Okkervil River, crafting lyrical and meticulous folk songs that are as much melon-scratchers as foot-stompers. In so many words, these dudes have a hard-on for the highbrow—and almost every one of the tracks off of their latest LP Dark Arc is pregnant with the kind of philosophical wordplay that’d have Detective Rust Cohle weak at the knees.

Saintseneca

Crack out the old philosophy 101 textbook and listen to Saintseneca’s Dark Arc – an album with one foot in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the other in the dulcet, bearded folk of American bohemia nouveau.

The hay-fever vocals and straw-hat aesthetic of ‘Saintseneca’s’ sound puts them in a canon with more than a few dapper bedfellows. This is the type of pastoral, big-brained music that you might expect from such poetic songsters as The Decemberists, Kevin Devine or mewithoutYou: flush and clean instrumentation deeply engraved with earnest lyricism.

And, as with all of these bands, it’s this lyricism that is the tiger’s stripes: the jaunty pop march of lead single Happy Alone a mere primer for such considered lines as “I’m not one to/be three-fourths sore/when I crave a split lip/I’ll get it quick”; the resonant vocals of album highlight Only The Young Die Good slurring “Jesus, I’m drunk on this spirit tonight” around a tongue placed firmly in cheek.

This is loaded diction in a relatively unburdened soundscape, and there’s a palpable weight to every one of frontman Zac Little’s words. Hiding his silver tongue under a moustache that would whet a walrus, the aforementioned neo-Nietzsche seems to have cut his teeth on history’s sharpest minds—and he never shies from sinking them into its grandest ideas.

During the forty odd minutes of ‘Dark Arc’, Saintseneca chew the cud on a number of heavy philosophical issues: from fatalism to existentialism to lifesucksthenyoudie-ism. It’s a lot of big ideas crammed into a pretty small sardine can, and an ambitious kind of songwriting that might just bury any lyricist unable to juggle them. Thankfully Little seems to know his onions, and appreciates the value of subtlety: never holding on to any one theory for too long, but only briefly touching on each in connection to a greater overall point.

Ultimately, what that point ends up being is something like: ‘it’s a bummer to be human’. After all, “what are we but agreements of the senses?” Not a whole lot, apparently. In Daendors, Little laments on the ultimate pointlessness of a life in which he is “never justified”, in which he “Couldn’t find enough to do”; in Happy Alone, he reflects that “to presuppose this precipice/could be climbed by any one of us” is a “misjudgment”. It would seem that, for him, life is something of a fallacy: in the end “you’re always ending… all that you know in the instance/is lost in the waves of existence… all that you long for/when you attain it you will be no more”(Falling Off). Heavy shit.

There are, however, some cracks of light in Little’s murky worldview. Towards the end of the album, he follows up the lamentation: “You say we learn from our mistakes/Salt pillars and garden snakes/so I made myself a history buff/only made me more hopeless” (Dark Arc) with the repeated line: “Eve ain’t naïve no more”(We Are All Beads On The Same String)—as if to point out that some at least learn from their mistakes; that there is perhaps some hope of redemption.

Whilst lyrics like: “If only the good ones die young/I’d pray your corruption come swift… If only the young ones die good/I’d pray your corruption would slip like a slit in the wrist” (Only the Young Die Good) may seem bitter, it is with a certain kind of sweetness. This is just Little grappling, in the way of the wordsmith, with that age-old mindfuck of caring enough about something to let it go, and loving someone to (literal) death. Which, if he truly is as “happy alone” as he claims, might not be such a horrible thing after all.

Thus the gloomy darkness is illuminated, though only by way of lightning. It’s some kind of double-edged sword. But if life really is as dim and hopeless as the philosophers would have us believe, then at least ‘Saintseneca’ make it sound good.

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May 5, 2014

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