Clear – Never Falling Again (2011)

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With Never Falling Again, Clear explores the devastation left behind as relationships end – yet somehow comes away with a collection of songs that’s startlingly beautiful. That’s no easy feat. But the Canadian band’s deft blending of pop, folk and jazz styles ensure that no matter how dark the subject matter, this album never falls into lonely crepuscular clichés. Instead, Clear – led by singer Sue Johnson and guitarist Christian Patterson – are as empathetic as they are musically adventurous.

Take the lithe pop number “Maybe This Time,” a song that might have been a sad-sack murmur in another group’s hands. Instead, Johnson’s fights back against melancholy with a deeply soulful vocal, even as Patterson offers a series of intriguing asides – sounding, in the end, something like a less precious offering from Natalie Merchant.

Patterson then digs deeper, finding an almost sinister groove for “Never Falling Again,” even as Johnson settles at first into these longer, quieter, devastatingly touching vocal lines. Then the song seems to top a hill and go airborne, with a series of soaring choruses. That structure recalls Crowded House, right down to the sharp-edged lyrics and a serpentine solo turn on the guitar. Clear even pulls up to an almost complete stop before restarting “Never Falling Again” with a rumbling, echoing gait. In the end, it’s a perfect modern-pop vehicle.

The duo lingers over every single moment in the subsequent “Saddest Words,” this twilight lament for a long-since-gone love. Johnson’s hard-eyed recollections, so finely drawn, speak to her passion for the work of Joni Mitchell. Patterson then plays with a crisp, riffy jazziness on “If Only I Could,” channeling Wes Montgomery, as Patterson ramps up into a sophisticated swing straight out of Steely Dan. That sets the stage beautifully for the harmonica-driven “Don’t Turn Me Loose,” which rattles along like a westernly train moving through sun-soaked landscapes. Patterson adds these funky wah-wah asides before unfurling a chest-burstingly beautiful little solo.

“Gospel Rhyme,” rather than the expected pew-rattling number, begins as one of the most emotionally raw moments on Never Falling Again. When Johnson quietly sings “it’s all I have to give,” alongside a ruminative lick from Patterson, she sounds like she’s talking about her heart, her life, everything. The tune then takes catches a second gear, as her voice is double tracked and then triple tracked, creating the soaring whirl that its title originally hinted at in the first place. Next, “I’m Your Evolution” leaps out with this spacious groove, giving Patterson and Johnson a chance to let loose a little. After a string of painterly, almost operatic themes, Clear knows instinctively when a change of pace is needed.

“This Train” combines the two impulses, with a doom-laden Cowboy Junkies-ish combination of classic escapist themes and this snappy, propulsive beat. When Johnson falls into a swaying, wordless vocal interlude, the song draws a straight line back to late 1970s efforts by Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie.

“Doesn’t Really Matter” returns to the sharp jazz convictions of “If Only I Could,” perhaps to even greater effect. A fat, clever little bass line pushes Johnson into a more emotive place, even as Patterson adds his own blurts, retorts and smart-mouth replies on the guitar. Finally, there’s the contemplative ballad “Mrs. Parker,” this wonder of controlled pathos – monumentally powerful both in the way it’s performed and the way it was created, without a whiff of brokenhearted banality. “You don’t know my name,” Johnson sighs at the end, sounding completely defeated, then adds: “What’s it matter, anyway?”

And just like that, as if a screen door had slammed behind an ex-lover, the album is over.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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