“Three things are necessary,” wrote Thomas Aquinas, “for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” It could be said that Topography of a Bird, the charming full-length debut from singer-songwriter Mark Rice, is an exploration of that path to enlightenment. Full of transcendental petitions for love, comfort, and understanding, Topography is a record that explores some complicated queries through some improbably uncomplicated folk melodies and introspective lyrics; the meditations of a journeyman concerned less with the answers than he is with the questions at hand.
Topography of a Bird is the stuff of Sunday night introspection; of those solitary moments that descend after the church lights have dimmed, the monks have retired for the evening, and the rest of the congregants have gone home. In those instances, alone and unhinged against the backdrop of forever, one rarely thinks in nuanced poetry or grand declarations. Instead, he thinks (prays, meditates) on the perpetually dawning sweep of his life in the broader scope, and Rice seems to understand this quite well, whittling his search down to its most primary parts. How have I failed? How have I succeeded? What do I desire? What do I despise? Who am I now and what do I eventually wish to become? That his music appeals to these (quote-unquote) big life questions without proselytization or solipsistic trifling is a laudable feat, and it’s what males Topography at once so enjoyable and also so severe.
Belief, desire, and action. Rice raises the curtain on these concerns from the outset with the album’s whispered opening track, “Show Me How To Love,” a lyrically and sonically understated entree that begins with the chirping rhythm of nighttime crickets before the first strum of guitars. As the song builds Rice returns to one simple refrain over and over again: “Show me how to love/ Show me how to love/ When the stars are so bright…so bright.” It’s a soft meditation that sets the table for the album’s ensuing 13 tracks.
To be sure, Rice’s brush strokes are broad, even at times a little vague, as he peppers Topography with supplicant titles like “Hold Me Now,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Save Me Tonight.” But this strain of indeterminate invocation—to a woman? to a friend? to God?—is the record’s greatest strength. It’s what binds the album as an honest and accessible work. And even when he sometimes dances on the edge of sentimentality Rice never gives in, always managing to avoid preciousness with an easy turn of phrase. His songs—along with all of their potential vagaries—are both intensely personal (see the wonderfully haunting “Ohio”) and yet universally appealing to a hunger for understanding what it means to be frail and broken and human.
In “Hold Me Now,” Rice is “at the crossroads/ Looking for the ancient way, the good way.” In “Don’t Let Me Down”—a road-ready, drive-time ditty—he beckons, “Don’t let the day get away/ Until I make amends.” And in “Maybe This Time,” one of Topography’s standout tracks: “I’m messed up and broken/ And I can’t see past my pride.” The cynics may confuse these for the lamentations of an old-world Pollyanna, the cries a man who still believes that perhaps salvation is simpler than we think. But where Rice’s silence and simplicity leave off, the vibrancy of the album’s musicality picks up.
Topography’s edge of enlightenment owes much to the production of David Young, a vintage stylist with some serious pop-rock predilections that harken back less to Dylanesque balladeers than to The Beach Boys or Weezer. Pulling from that tradition, Young allows Rice’s otherwise simple, coffee-shop melodies to blossom and grow into their fuller organic potential. Consider “Tuscan Sun,” a bittersweet number that, in the hands of a lesser reggisseur, might suffer under the weight of its own importance. But Young—who sings backup and also plays several studio instruments on the record, including some impressive lead guitar and harmonica—transforms the track into something wholly anthemic. You can almost see the lighters being raised in unison as a grand, harmonic chorus swells in the final minute, begging “Don’t let the sun go down now/ All my life I’ve waited now I/ Know your eyes, your life, your smile with mine.” It’s a sublime moment.
The same could be said of “Be With you Tonight.” What begins as an unadorned bedroom ballad—a little bit Elliot Smith, a little bit Ray Lamontagne—slowly builds into another one of Topography’s unexpected anthems, swelling with pianos, thudding percussion, and electric guitars. Just when it seems Rice’s spirit is beyond saving, his music finds redemption yet again. Torture, death, rebirth. Let the rain fall down.
Rice also gets a lot of help from a respectable swath of studio musicians here, including the venerable Verien Brotzman on percussion, Tom Swope on bass, and Sissy Clemens on violin and vocals (more about her in a moment). But Topography’s background players do more than add layers to the music; they lend the album a casual air of good nature and inviting humor. Despite their gravity, Rice’s tunes are not depressive. In fact they are remarkably optimistic, and this chorus of musicians at his back only serve to drive home that point.
Only once on the album does Rice take a backseat to his fellow musicians, and the moment is one of Topography’s greatest triumphs. On “Starting Ground” Clemens takes the reigns and delivers a beautiful slice of smoky sensuality and sadness that thoroughly bely her mere 20 years. “Starting Ground” is a Clemens original and the only non-Rice tune on the record. Delivered at the album’s half-way mark, this late-night, bar-room piano ballad (I am painfully resisting the all-to-obvious Billie Holiday comparison here), which concerns itself with the simple sorrow of deception, takes the pathos to an entirely new level while never feeling out of place within the context of Topography’s greater aesthetic.
Rice has said the Topography’s title is derived from a quote he once heard about the ways in which thoughts are like birds. “We can’t stop them from flying over our heads,” it goes. “But we can keep them from making a nest in our hair.” What Rice has done is craft an album that is rich with flight and absent of any nests. It’s a patient album for a throughly impatient time, and at every turn it feels as though silent salvation is at hand.
BONUS TRACK: Check out the following clip of Rice performing “Ohio” last month in Pittsburgh during his record release concert.