All men will be sailors then, until the sea shall free them …
A melancholy ship drifts across the cover: drawn sails, shadows rising from the sea, the cloudy face of the moon in the distance. It’s the ship of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who sailed off into darkness and terror but returned to tell his story to the world.
The image is a fitting counterpart to the songs on Silent Passage. Canadian singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter’s only album, it’s due for reissue this summer. Although recorded in the 1970s and featuring some of the best musicians of the time — Ben Keith, Lowell George, Leland Sklar, Emmylou Harris — Silent Passage was released in 1984 due to contractual issues.
Little is known about the artist. He was born on an Indian reservation near North Bay, Ontario — so much seems certain — and he died in 1995 of brain cancer. Whatever storms he weathered as he sailed through life, in the early ’70s he disembarked for a spell in Toronto and Los Angeles to record the ten songs that remain his musical legacy.
Silent Passage kicks off with “Miracle Man,” an upbeat Americana tune. Musically it reminds of the Band, but it’s the voice that commands attention: a gritty sound, husky and deep, with traces of early Tom Waits but roots in the country and a hard-worn sense of loneliness. It’s a voice that sounds like it could tear down a building. Carpenter’s singing comes on full force in the second and title-song of the album. “Silent Passage” is a slow-paced journey through regret and hope, accompanied by strings and Harris on back-up vocals. Like many of Carpenter’s songs, it deals with faith and despair, and describes man as a solitary traveler longing for a home.
A similar feeling pervades “First Light,” one of the album’s most striking songs. It starts as a contemplative ballad, but then the mood changes. A dramatic C Major seventh enters and the rhythm takes on a martial tone. “In the first light of morning,” Carpenter proclaims, “an army I have gathered.” Invoking Christ as a fellow soldier, he admits that his weapons are no match for innocence: “And I have come with sword and heavy armor, where he was dressed in wonder.”
There are more highlights. “Gypsy Boy” is a moody ballad, reminiscent of Jerry Jeff Walker. It’s sung in an ominous bass filled with a sense of impending doom, which is underscored by an eerie arrangement and lyrics about “wolves along the border” and “grandma’s bones” lying to bleach. And “Now and Then” contains this beautiful verse …
How could something perfect change
To something less and back again
And in between have all this pain
Because we’re asking why?
In terms of imagery, Silent Passage bears comparison to A Salty Dog, Procol Harum’s brilliant 1969 record about sea-faring souls. Yet, Bob Carpenter is a more intimate singer than Gary Brooker, and his struggle against despair and reaching out for redemption are perhaps more deeply felt. Carpenter isn’t singing songs: he’s laying bare the frightening depths beneath the surfaces of our lives.
It’s a tragedy that an album that contains so much beauty and wisdom was never picked up by a larger audience. In the depth of his vision, the intensity of his singing and the melancholy wisdom of his lyrics, Bob Carpenter has very few rivals, and Silent Passage belongs among the great singer-songwriter albums to come out of the 1970s.
We can only wonder whether the sailor who sings these songs ever found a safe haven for himself. Did he find God’s golden shore, a shelter from the sea of despair and weariness that spilled over into his voice? Or is he still sailing some shadowy ocean, like the Flying Dutchman, his ghostly voice ringing high above the waves?
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