Published Feb 20, 2020Are You Gone, the first new album in a decade from Sarah Harmer, is a deeply personal and momentous collection of rock-infused folk songs informed by the beauty of life, the urgency of our collective climate crisis and questions around what loss really means. It highlights the great strengths of a singer, musician, and songwriter and how much the inherent resolve of her work has been missed.
Since 2010's Oh Little Fire, Harmer has gone through a lot and at least some of those experiences have been adapted into truly artful songs. She retreated further from city life for a fixer-upper home in the Kingston, ON countryside and further immersed herself in the natural world. You can feel this life in songs like "Just Get Here" and "Little Frogs," which both marvel at the calm, but also ponder the isolation.
She has been outspoken in fighting the implementation of crude oil pipelines in communities that don't want them, but has generally avoided addressing climate change issues overtly in her work. That said, she makes sure to bring the great outdoors and temperamental oceans, which freeze or drift about, into the album's landscape (the suspenseful "St. Peter's Bay" and "See Her Wave" come to mind) and, on the anthemic "New Low," voices her frustrations with less than innocent bystanders who seem fine not to intervene with a planet spinning toward oblivion.
Beyond universal calamities, there's plenty of personal reflection about the past and figures in Harmer's life who have passed too. Twenty years since breaking out with another existentially titled album, You Were Here, Harmer is thinking about some of the people she encountered during her formative years, as an artist and as a person.
Some, like the subject of "The Lookout," are sinister ghosts; others, like her friend and early mentor Gord Downie, are loving spirits who warrant grateful tributes like "What I Was to You." Whenever Harmer addresses the narrative "you," it feels starkly direct and vivid; so many strong faces and voices emerge within these thoughtful soundtracks. People might leave us, but they're never really gone.
Harmer sporadically wrote songs over the past decade, and then in 2017, she connected with Marcus Paquin, a Montreal-based producer, whom she only knew for his work on Aidan Knight's Each Other, which she appreciates. Paquin wound up being a quiet but encouraging shepherd for Are You Gone, quelling Harmer's second-guessing tendencies during the sessions and helping her achieve the perfect sonic aesthetic for one of the most accomplished and affecting albums in her already remarkable catalogue. (Arts & Crafts)