San Fermin is one of those almost impossible albums to review. I could talk about it for hours, but I’ve now begun the writing process for this review five times, pleading to *insert your god here* for divine intervention or, in the least, a muse-ish jolt of creativity to perfectly encapsulate my feelings for this album. But it’s not coming. I’m torn by which facet to highlight first, thus giving it the spotlight, and forever making you think that it’s the one takeaway, if forced, I would want you to recall when listening to the album for the first time. Overall, and in short, this album will likely be my “Album of the Year” pick here at Speakers in Code. It deserves your attention, not only because of its beauty, but because it’s something inherently different, especially for a band basing itself in Brooklyn. I know, I know – an area’s music can in no way be surmised into a singular category — especially a cultural melting pot like Brooklyn, NY. Strangely enough though, what makes this album so…daring, is the bands approximation to another NYC area. But I’m not talking about one of the five boroughs here – I’m talking about Broadway, which is honestly the only place my brain will let me begin discussing this album, and the band’s live show, which puts this record into an entirely different perspective.
An initial listen only reveals the top layer of what Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the mastermind behind San Fermin, has awarded us. From the opening verse of “Renaissance,” the album draws clumsy comparison to the baritone croon of The National, but with the angelic wisp of Sufjan Steven’s pre-electronic work. But that comparison should only be made by people unwilling to delve a bit deeper and listen to this record as a whole. For those people, throw in some Dirty Projectors instrumental tomfoolery and sprinkle in a little of Regina Spector’s more recent work, and you have yourself an album review. But this is something much different, both thematically, and in the way that it’s presented to us as an audience. And unlike most musical composers delivering their first compiled work as a modern music package, we’re not treated as though we’re dumb, or have A.D.D. and can’t follow a complete thought for 40 minutes. Instead, we’re taken on a holistic journey, through what was likely a very difficult time for Ludwig–Leone.
Songs like the aforementioned “Renaissance,” while standing beautifully on its own, are basically our introduction to the male protagonist of the record. Our female player is ushered in upon the second song, “Crueler Kind,” and from that point, it’s apparent we’re dealing a guy, and girl, who see things from very different perspectives. And that realization that the male voice (Allen Tate) and female voice (Jess Wolfe) are set characters is what brings us to my overwhelming need to view this album through a Broadway lens. It’s something I don’t know if I would have picked up not having seen them perform this album live. But once you sit, and see how the leads interact with each other on stage, and how one will take the lead as the other falls into the background, and how the songs are obviously meant to be sung TO each other, the complete picture is realized, thus making the recorded LP forever changed, magically giving it the feel of a soundtrack record from major production.
It needs to be said though, that nothing about this record is cheesy, or overdramatic, or any of the other adjectives that can be used to negatively describe the musical theater genre. The comparison, for me, is strictly about the use of song to tell a complete story, and the interaction between performers, as characters, on stage. San Fermin delivers this, both traditionally and non-traditionally when framed this way. “Sonsick,” with its swelling chorus, is pure indie-pop bliss hearkening to the excitement, albeit possibly temporarily, of young love, while “Methuselah” delivers those heartbreaking moments that are, more often than not, the resulting feeling of such emotional highs. “Bar” seems to be about trying to rally, and rebound, unfortunately with less-than-optimal results. While “Daedalus” seems to be a sign that our heartbroken male protagonist is trying to let go.
When put together – the songs of San Fermin are extremely introspective, and personal, and for lack of a better term…brave. When performing them live, though, it all has to be overwhelmingly cathartic for Ludwig-Leone, because here, he’s created something that simply has to be bigger than the fleeting emotional highs, and pain, of young-love. He’s given us, as fans of music, a glimpse into our former lives, where EVERYTHING seems bigger, stronger and more important. And when set to a musical composition like this – we can allow ourselves to feel that way again, even if it’s for the “fictional” characters playing out the story on wax.