Alex Southey’s And the Country Stirred opens on a soured dream. “Caught You On the Throat” moves like some nebulous threat, the kind of sideways vision found at the crossroads of wakefulness and sleep. An ambling haze that crescendos on a fog of strings, drones and horns, it’s a fitting introduction to Southey’s bruised world. And the Country Stirred is a spectral place, where moments of light are made even more dazzling for the shadows that surround them.
Woven together from acoustic guitar, strings, drone and piano, the largely percussion-less record feels like a series of deconstructed epics, grand monuments that’ve gone to dust. The beautiful “Rosie,” rising from the gloom of “Caught You On the Throat,” is a deeply yearning love song carried Southey’s keening vocals. Capable of both a husky hollowness and climbing falsetto, his voice is the guiding light through these dense thickets of song, swooping and diving through the arrangements with ease. The mood is consistent throughout and, while he is adept at maintaining darkness without tipping into melodrama, the successive dirges begin to feel heavy.
The closest he comes to upbeat is “The Victor’s Bell,” a comparatively sunny strummer that belies its steely lyrics that grapple with notions of success and hardship and the promise of God. For the most part, however, the record retains its opaque darkness and, as instruments pile atop each other, there are moments of unintended friction. Southey’s ambitiously stacked vocal harmonies and swaths of strings and drone don’t always quite meld, most notably on the one-two punch of “On the Dance Floor” and “Friends and Dinner.” Still, the way the strings saw and squiggle atop one another is stirring — even if they sometimes slip, you are glad he made the attempt.
When he gets it right, the results are heart-stopping. The silvery strings that open “She Prefers Halifax” are pure cinema, blooming and breaking apart as the song circles its lost love. It is in that track’s balancing act between melody and dissonance — heard again on the bellowing climax of “Kids” — that Southey sounds most at home, where wildness is tempered with precision and light can peek through the darkness. And the Country Stirred is an individual accomplishment. It is the kind of record whose minor missteps feel part of a grander whole, whose story is too complicated for clean lines and easy answers.