“‘Tis a fearful thing, to love what death can touch.”
That phrase, written by 11th century Spanish philosopher and poet Judah Halevi, reconciles two conflicting certainties: we will love, and what we love will die. We will be loved; we, too, will die. The two seem antithetical, like two sides of a coin, as if something’s worth is undermined by its mortality. But they coexist. In a certain light, they even complement one another. There is courage inherent in building a community that we will one day leave. Though we will cease to exist, the love we share is not necessarily terminal.
On Let’s Be Wilderness, his new record with revolving-door project Postdata, Paul Murphy explores both sides of that coin. The frontman of beloved Nova Scotia alternative outfit Wintersleep, Murphy has built a circle of collaborators, friends, and family around him for more than a decade. Murphy first released music with Postdata in 2010, a self-titled debut that saw him working with his brother Michael to record a set of songs that dealt with family, legacy, and connection. Now, Postdata returns with Let’s Be Wilderness, a record characterized by those two old bickering friends: love and death.
The 10-track record came together much the same as Murphy’s other projects: through a community of friends and family. A vacation in Europe found Murphy ringing up friends and former tourmates Grant Hutchison and Andy Monaghan (both of Scottish indie rock triumph Frightened Rabbit). It was these meetings with old pals that birthed Let’s Be Wilderness. The cast was rounded out by Murphy’s Wintersleep bandmates Loel Campbell and Tim D’Eon, with additional work from Simone Pace (Blonde Redhead) and production from acclaimed Scottish producer Tony Doogan.
Though his brother wasn’t directly involved this time around, the connection still touched the new record. Michael introduced Paul to the work of Nova Scotian artist Cecil Day, who handled the artwork for the record. “A few years ago, my brother introduced me to her work, so every year we’ll go down and we’ll buy another piece of art from her,” Murphy laughs. She lives in Yarmouth, where Murphy’s family is from.
The change might discomfort some, but the rotating cast is part and parcel to Postdata; like all things, it’s never static, nor set in stone. “It can be anything,” Murphy says of Postdata. “It’s not actually really a band. It’s a project that you can work on with different people that you meet as you’re touring. You can build a record that way.”
The result is a work bursting with the sum of its parts. Sharp, succinct electronics and thunderous drums are framed around the earthy lull of Murphy’s resonant tenor, all while his familiar, rootsy acoustics drape across the record like a strand of family-favourite Christmas lights. The contemplative electro-sprawl of “Gravity” gives way to the breathy dreamscape of “Pasture,” a song sewn together from fragments of a recurring dream. “Evil” bursts in with a romping, harmonious gospel stomp, while closer “Windows” is an intimate, candle-light ballad with just Murphy and his guitar. For all the record’s trials, it parts with a gentle declaration: “I won’t walk away from you now,” Murphy says gently.
The record bears two qualities: familiarity and mystery. Let’s Be Wilderness suggests as much. The words are an invitation to become something entirely untamed. “It felt like it was a good, welcoming title that also has this ‘wonder’ quality as well,” Murphy says. “I want it to be inviting,” he adds earnestly. The record opens with “Wilderness,” a track that finds Murphy’s warm, homey lilt paired with rich acoustic strings. “Let’s be wilderness,” he sings longingly, a blissful start. But nothing gold can stay, as the chorus finds him lamenting, “I’m a loneliness.”
Let’s Be Wilderness plays out as probe of that urgent duality: the desire for warmth and community, and the burrowing, unavoidable reality that, one day, it will be no more. On Wilderness, Murphy reconciles that spectrum that, as he’s grown older, he’s become more comfortable with navigating. “You go through a lot of different emotions,” he says of the years between Postdata releases. “Getting older is a theme that’s present in a lot of the writing.”
Writing is Murphy’s vehicle to work through anxieties. “That’s what songwriting is: figuring out all that existential stuff. You’re writing to figure out what’s going on in your own heart, your own soul.” With these songs, he doesn’t aim to instil despair; rather, he seeks to provide solace. “You are going to die eventually, so you don’t want to be stressing about it,” he chuckles.
The enveloping dance-noir of “Black Cloud” pulses behind a harrowing narrative. “I want my body back/Mama, I’m contaminated,” Murphy submits wearily on the chorus. The imagery came from a dream in which his bedroom was consumed in a dark cloud, while the lyrics developed after he watched a documentary on soldiers returning home with PTSD. The film depicted how some soldiers repurposed their uniforms into pieces of art as part of the healing process. It struck Murphy as “trying to change the meaning of the symbol for them and to be able to create and dictate the meaning of their uniforms in their own terms.”
The track is a window into a key tenet of Murphy’s songwriting: empathy. “It's kind of told from the perspective of someone who is trying to empathize or help someone who is in a desperate headspace,” he explains. “I've always been intrigued or interested in arriving at a place of empathy in a situation you can't really understand.”
It becomes clear that a sort of manifest destiny threads through Let’s Be Wilderness. As Murphy wrestles with the pendulum-swing of hope and despair, pondering what will become of the two, he’s created an analogue for those theoretical queries: a transient project created from community, rooted in empathy, guided by love.
Late in the record, when Murphy swears on “Cling To Me” to “build a machine from the scraps of our bodies,” perhaps he’s already laid the blueprint. From Yarmouth to Glasgow to New York to Montreal and back home to Yarmouth, Murphy has woven a web of passion and connection between continents, countries, and humans. And, like all good things, it will come to pass. But Halevi reminds us, “‘Tis a human thing… a holy thing, to love what death has touched.”
Biography by Luke Ottenhof