Since his 2005 solo debut Lights Out, Nat Baldwin has specialized in honeyed, melodic pop set to robust, upright bass-heavy accompaniments. The acrobatic, offbeat melodies recall his Dirty Projectors bandmate David Longstreth, while his chugging, athletically bowed accompaniment evokes Arthur Russell. However, for In the Hollows, Baldwin has cited a quite different list of influences, including the erudite, folk-oriented singer-songwriters Judee Sill and Bill Callahan.
As with Sill and Callahan, there is a warmth and unaffected beauty to Baldwin’s album that is at odds with the pain of its lyrics — sometimes dull and obscure and, elsewhere, shockingly explicit. In some way all of the songs (Baldwin’s strongest and most intimate batch to date) address death and self-destructiveness. “A Good Day to Die” feels like the most personal meditation on these issues, a reflection on the difficulties of both dying and living well which culminates with the lines “If I knew that it would come to this I would do it again/ A good day to die is the only way I know how to live.” “Sharpshooter,” an elegiac ballad with one of the most beautiful melodies Baldwin has ever written, delves into similar themes, detailing what seem to be the pre-and-post-mortem thoughts of a drowned man: “Music of the swan glides across the water’s wake/ holding last breath for all my labors/laid to rest in the one place I knew best.”
Though the album’s finest moments are its sparest, the full-band tracks are also engaging, sometimes even overtly poppy (the R&B-tinged “Wasted”). Only the overwrought “Cosmos Pose” — a Sturm und Drang-y rocker which hinges on Baldwin melodramatically wandering up and down the notes of a minor scale — falls flat. The title track and extended boxing metaphor “Knockout,” in particular, show how Baldwin’s material can flourish with the support of a full band: In this case, mostly Otto Hauser’s drums and a full, floridly arranged string section. Baldwin expertly juggles his interests in taut songcraft and detailed orchestration — never favoring one over the other, and using one only in the other’s best interests. The result is a subtle and streamlined album, his most accessible to date.