I can’t remember the last time a song made me cry, but toward the end of Mike Acerbo’s evocative, engrossing CD, THE SEARCH, it happens. “Robbie” chronicles Acerbo’s soul-kept memories of his childhood best friend, who drowned in the Delaware river when he was in his early teens. But the images this poet evokes bear neither a scintilla of schmaltz nor a hint of histrionic melodrama. No, he allows his memories speak for themselves in the simplest of fragments, both heartbreaking and tragic. His pain is palpable, as you ache alongside his longing. Yet, even when describing the indescribable, his pen whispers in heart-wrenching profundity:
“Oh, the water flooded you…there were angels on air…
Had I known your fire would simmer in that river, shimmering…sparkling stars up to the sky…
I would have fought with every angel…”
The rest of this gorgeous self-released album isn’t so saddled with tears. THE SEARCH is about just that, as he sojourns his soul and the ghosts that linger, and the fantastical world he inhabits, for answers sometimes – and sometimes not – found. I’m reluctant to use “fairytale” to describe these pieces because they strike such a cathartic and emotional innate chord in Acerbo, and the listener, that these are more “truth tales”.
From the fanciful carnival feast of “Blueberry Moon” (“I take a stroll there’s a blueberry moon peering above the treetops…”), to the quiet devastation at the intangibility of his “Mother”, who passed away from breast cancer when he was only 14 (“…keep the candle burning through the window pain so that I may find my way again to your embrace…it held me near, hold me near again…where is your embrace…?”); from the questionable nature of love itself – is it a “Fairytale Love” (“…you rode in on your horse of gold, swept me away, we were bold…”) or is the very idea of love a fairy tale (“…this is not real…this is not real…”)? – to the dark forces sometimes winning the war between light and despair in the breathtaking “Trilby” (“…her lips scarred and torn from a thousand misplaces kisses…she’s been dancing with so many men, none of them would love her and that little girl is a stone woman now…”); from the irony of the country-tinged sound waves of the exhilarating “Where The River Meets The Sea” juxtaposed with its escapist, almost ironic, lyricism (“…I’m sitting here upstream next to a fading fire, thinking about my life and knowing there’s got to be a better place…”) to the often psychologically manipulating terrain of unrequited love in “Like The Tide” (“…I am the nothing that you see, when you look into my eyes…I am the empty well you’ve drunk dry, you are like the tide…”) – track after track Acerbo bares his soul with mystical stories layered in intricate imagery and truth – some dark, some tinged in hope, some reticent – each all-too human.
While each song is a monument in itself, this collection is really fully realized as a whole, from the start of the voyage until the finish. The album ends with “The Night Light” and the cautionary hope that perhaps love isn’t really a pipe dream, that despite those battles with the aforementioned darkest forces, it can bloom into fruition (“…I can feel the heart of the masses, I can see the tired eyes and hear the hatred…if you grasp it, we ain’t gonna make it…don’t you know that the night light in your hands baby, is a fire that will lead you to my darkened heart…”) – maybe all one needs to accomplish this is to detoxify the soul of such influences.
If Acerbo’s voice sometimes struggles to keep up with the glorious melodies he writes, or sounds strained, or if a few tracks get mired in the layered production, it’s those imperfections that make such songs like the brilliant “Beast” (the other side of the mirror, so to speak, to Stevie Nicks’ classic “Beauty And The Beast”, with the viewpoint of the beast himself) ring true; he’s not overtly concerned with sounding pretty (though he mostly does), he merely needs to tell his stories. And we sit there, enraptured by his pen, swirling in sonic paintings that are so ineffaceable – and even archetypal – they become tattoos to your soul. (It would be remiss of me not to mention Acerbo’s extraordinary band – their vast taut musicality never loses focus and at times, on varying cuts, actually reign Acerbo’s vocal flippancy back on track.)
From the images of castles, forests, dreams, witches and beasts, to the swooping melodic cadences, to the vulnerability-masqueraded-as-fortitude, the muses of Acerbo’s past might appear to be obvious. But appearances can be deceiving, for his is a singular pen, and when such muses are perceptible, he never stoops to mimicry, rather he heralds their aesthete, learning from the masters while forging his own unique identity as a dazzling modern troubadour for the still-new millennium.
And that he does so with some of the most haunting, ravishing and indelible melodies is merely icing.
My grade: A
Order (and sample) THE SEARCH via CD BABY, BandCamp, and iTunes.
Here’s the full music video to the album’s first single, “Trilby”: