Negotiations, the latest album from The Helio Sequence, is a lush and atmospheric addition to their catalog. The five years since “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” have been put to use creating a unified and moving collection of songs documenting the difficult conversations at the end of a relationship. Filled with moments of melancholy interspersed with uplifting and hopeful sparks, the album will satisfy both long time fans and newcomers to the band.
After the release of 2008’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead, the band’s Portland, OR, studio flooded, and though their equipment was spared, the space was ruined. The duo, comprised of Brandon Summers, lead vocals and guitar, and Brandon Weikel on drums and keyboards, relocated to a new studio and used that opportunity to renovate their sound and style. This evolution provides the more cohesive quality of the album and marks a gentle departure from previous works.
The songs of the aptly named Negotiations trace the tense conversations of a dying relationship. Songs take one side or the other of a circuitous debate, questioning direction, assigning motives, and placing blame. Tension permeates the album, each song adding a different sense of the anguish of breaking up and the conversations we offer each other, or have with ourselves, in the middle of a break-up. Yet, the sound is so lush that it buoys hope while reinforcing the sense that the Summers is trying to make the best of a situation he has no control over.
Opener “One More Time” begins the conversation. Over an insistent beat, Summers asks the object of his affections to “draw yourself more near to me, just one more time.” The plea to temporarily avoid the inevitable future apart sets the tone for this aching album of not seeing eye-to-eye as things fall apart.
“October” continues the debate. Summers reminds her of the last time she went away, and knowing that she must do it again, asking that she go with awareness, “raise your eyes.” But even as he pushes away, he admits, “it will come again; there will be a next time.” His lyrics are the counter point to her arguments, clever contrived attempts to find loopholes in the inevitable. In the end he caves, the song ending as he acknowledges she must go her own way. “Hall of Mirrors,” Negotiation’s first single, is instantly catchy and filled with a buoyant momentum, but on deeper listen, exposes the frustration of not being able to get someone else to see things your way, as though their vision was distorted, as though gazing into a fun-house mirror. Delusion, wishful thinking, and false hope fill the lyrics but the tune is still so beautiful that maybe just maybe it’s OK to stay in this unclear and muddied perspective, for a moment, then “shed your illusions.”
On the track “Harvester of Souls,” the album takes a bitter, accusatory turn opening with the line “Play me for the fool.” The theme continues with “Open Letter” and “Silence on Silence,” which follow up with provocative accusations “Where is your sense of wrong?” and denial “I’m not back on the other side with you.” Each song sharpens the divide, the arguments, the justifications, but as in an endless stream of negotiations, never quite resolves anything. Yet, throughout, the music itself, with its simplicity and beauty, keeps the listener from despairing, from walking away. That expectation is rewarded on the song “December”, with a lilting guitar intro and faint harp-like echoes. “December” moves the album quietly into a mood of anguished hope with a plea to leave behind the past, make a fresh start, and to “bring yourself back home.” Summers’ gentle voice sounds settled, resolved and ready to move on beyond.
The album ends with the title track, “Negotiations.” A light keyboard tinkle and echoing vocals paint a picture of winter streets, swept bare of obstructions, as Summers sings there will be “no more false promises…You see up ahead what could be…No more mystery.” Sweeping arrangements carrying his vocal, creating the sense of conviction, of resolution, and completes the album on a note of hope.
On the surface, Negotiations glistens with luminous arrangements and delicate instrumentation. Deeper listens reveal one half of a conversation at the end of a relationship, following the heights of hope and longing to the depths of bitterness and resolve, but the album does not get buried in this swell of loss and despair. Negotiations an album that gets richer on each play as a turn of phrase is uncovered and revealed. The beauty of the music and the arc of the songs return to a place of stability, if not full resolution, where conversations and negotiations can still happen, and can still have a chance of producing a positive outcome.