Sympathetic Magic is the fifth album from PDX’s Typhoon. It seems like these guys have been around forever, and they kind of have been around forever. Formed in Salem, OR, away back in 2005, they released their first eponymous album that year. Well known in indie circles, Typhoon are also famous for being a huge band, a nine-piece on this album. Sympathetic Magic came out last Friday, a surprise release. And it came with a note from frontman, Kyle Morton, and it’s worth quoting in full, if for no other reason that bands don’t do this often enough, they don’t provide us with notes, this insight to their worldview, their creative process, and how they see the world around them. Or at least they don’t when we first get their music. So:
My Dear Friend, I hope you’re holding up. What a mess! Small news in the big scheme, but we finished a record and I wanted to share it with you. I wrote all these songs while puttering around the house these past several months, because, what else was I going to do? The songs are about people -the space between them and the ordinary, miraculous things that happen there, as we come into contact, imitate each other, leave our marks, lose touch. Being self and other somehow amounting to the same thing. Recording had to be adapted to the plague-times. I tracked the demos first and sent them out to the band. Then the improvised procession of friends dropping by my basement, one at a time, masks on. Other folks recorded their parts in their own homes with cell phone voice memos or GarageBand in the laundry room. Parts from the original demos remain intact. Like everything right now, it was all a little disjointed, but I think it came together in the end. The record is called Sympathetic Magic and it’s a great joy to share it with you. To be honest, it’s a joy to share anything at all in these isolating times. Yrs, kyle / typhoon
The things Morton notes here, the space between us, the ordinary, the miraculous, etc., this has all been on my mind of late. My day job is in post-secondary education, and this is something that is missing from our messed up world, and yet, it’s not. I look at the ordinary and miraculous of my colleagues, my students. I see their families, their cats and their dogs, even. And all the beauty of the human story, the tragedy, is right there. It’s still there.
Their previous album, Offerings (2018) landed in the top spot of the Billboard Heatseeker’s Chart, and was a top 40 album overall. Sympathetic Magic continues that winning streak. The music is lush, orchestral, Morton’s vocals sound vaguely fragile, the album sounds like today. Opening track, ‘Sine Qua Nonentity’ introduces us to the nothingness and the everythingness of our world,
If you try you can remember how to get there
Don’t be surprised with how the light has changed
Landmarks rearranged you could be anywhere
That feeds into the current single, ‘Empire Builder,’ a countrified ballad, which sees Morton looking at a ruined land, America in the wake of Donald Trump, ‘the apocalypse is coming/but only slowly,’ as we have forestalled all that’s coming for us with the end of his administration. But a deeply divided land, all that entails. Yeah. But it sounds so pretty.
Mid-album track ‘We’re In It’ is flat out arresting: the story of two men, friends, or maybe former friends, life and its trials and tribulation and alcohol and then later, tragedy, and the continuing of life. I find myself coming back to this track over and over, the stutter step of the drums under the bass and acoustic guitar, the electric guitar, strings. The story, the lyrics I keep returning to, the thick description of the two men drinking whiskey together, unsure of their relationship, and then the tragedy later on, doing what tragedies tend to do. There is something visceral and real in this story.
‘And so What if You Were Right’ is one of those tracks that has parts of the demo in it, as it begins with Morton whispering the count, and then it’s just him and his acoustic guitar before the vocals. He is a mighty songwriter, but it’s not just about melody and chords, it’s in his lyrics, in this song, a pean to a dead friend. It is only slightly more fleshed out from the demo, some atmospherics, a bit of bass guitar. It is dreamy and yet so persistently present.
When I was younger, I was obsessed with the lyrics of a song, the lyrics mattered even more than the music. As I have got older, it’s not so much that I don’t pay attention to the lyrics, they remain important, but I have a deeper appreciation for the music. And yet, listening to Typhoon here, even more so than their back catalogue, Morton’s lyrics are stories, they draw you in, the listener, they leave you wanting to know more. What inspired that story? Is it real? Is it a fragment of a book? A TV show? What IS it?
‘Masochist Ball’ holds back no punches, with Morton singing,
You deserve to die
You deserve painful needles in your eyes
And every clever punishment in your cunning you devise
Hold back nothing.
Over this beautiful, lush track, Morton lets loose on this person, turning the spotlight onto himself, and it’s so visceral and immediate in its emotions and anger, its sadness, depression, its weeping.
Album closer, ‘Welcome to the Endgame’ was the lead single, released 30 October 2020, in the leadup to the presidential election, and we return to the fractured, broken America we met in ‘Empire Builder,’ to me the songs are bookends. Morton pens an emotional letter to his country, a plea, a furious rant.
All throughout, Morton’s lyrics reflect us in this moment, all the feelz we have in a Covid world, in the post-Trump world (even if the album was written and recorded in the Trump world), the rawness, the anger and everything else we feel. This is a stunning album, quite simply.