This EP is self-consciously inconsequential to the grander narrative surrounding these artists’ careers.
After last year’s Suffuse on Ba Da Bing! Records, Roy Montgomery moves to Okarina for a short EP that finds him covering a classic Leonard Cohen song, “Last Year’s Man.” The first side is a straight cover, the second an instrumental built out of the song’s core elements. Musically, everything is firmly in Montgomery’s normal terrain: Warm synthesizers, drones that double as harmonious blocks of sound, cumulative developments. Funny enough, the synths, vocals and a drum machine on resemble a classic Beach House setting, giving Montgomery’s typically ambient work a nice dream pop edge.
Montgomery’s Suffuse saw the composer working with a host of different vocalists, a different artist or duo on each track. He showed a deep understanding of each singer’s style, fitting their varying timbres into his breezy fold. Given how successful that project was, “Last Year’s Man” feels like a missed opportunity to perfect this skill. As a singer, Montgomery, resembles Cohen’s bleak baritone so much that his vocals offer little novelty when compared to the original; on the other hand, imagine Haley Fohr or Julianna Barwick taking on the melody—it would be far more adventurous.
Perhaps this desire to hear more variation in Montgomery’s cover stems from the inherent mutability of Cohen’s songwriting. His sparse arrangements and cryptic lyrics offer endless interpretations, easily lending themselves to alterations in genre and message. He has to be one of the most covered pop songwriters of all time, and each new artist is given the responsibility of putting their individual stamp on Cohen’s songs. Aretha Franklin’s bootleg recording of “Suzanne,” for instance, takes the originally droll ode and explodes it into a sensual, spiritual paean to romance. Montgomery’s version feels just a bit lacking in this sense, as if it’s not quite Montgomery-esque enough to really speak.
Both compositionally and sonically, “After Vermeer” is more intruiging, even if the bulk of the piece is sourced from “Last Year’s Man.” The core synthesizer progression remains, but here it serves as a base for Jessica Moss’s violin sweeps. Over the course of the track, her layers become noisier while Montgomery’s keyboards are swallowed by reverb. The whole piece rides a gentle descent into airiness, a process that occurs so sluggishly that it feels easy, natural. This take on Cohen’s harmonic sequence feels more in tune with Montgomery’s strengths as a performer and composer. It’s infinitely more spellbinding, helping the track attain the expansiveness that marks his previous albums.
This EP is self-consciously inconsequential to the grander narrative surrounding these artists’ careers. The scope and quality never reaches that of any studio album either Moss or Montgomery have released this decade (both of their 2018 releases are high water marks), but the music simultaneously revels in its curio status. It’s a direct answer to Montgomery asking himself what would happen if he stretched a Leonard Cohen track out into two 12-minute tracks, more of a real-time thought experiment than a closed composition. Its successes occur mostly in “After Vermeer,” where the song’s skeleton is as a basis for improvisation and creative expansion, not as a strict guideline to follow blindly.