Pete Quirk has always had a powerful imagination. He's penned songs about highway towns and trains whistlin' over blizzards and pines in studios well within a city's limits, and dreamt up wispy tales of pure love aplenty. He's driven across the country to live in a place he'd seen only in pictures on its promise of rejuvenation and beauty. But some of the most profound lessons he's learned have been in coming to grips with the reality behind those visions ("[Seattle] doesn't look exactly what I thought it was gonna look like"), and it's in those moments of realization that the Cave Singers' Naomi (out March 5 on Jagjaguwar) was born.
"This [album] is sort of a story of letting go," the vocalist says. "Letting go of different ideas of things that you had that made up who you are on some level, and letting go of relationships, letting go of regret over relationships—things like that."
He continues: "I had gone through a breakup [last year]. But more than that, just sort of like different things changing in my life, and sort of a transitional period. A time of being more clear that things are more impermanent than I would like to believe. For me, that was sort of a great moment, and also a difficult, uncomfortable moment to be like 'I can't just nail everything to the ground,' and be like 'This is how life is, and it's going to be great,' because it's changing constantly."
Quirk has a striking way of taking vague or imagined imagery—primarily tales of love and spirituality—and making it feel universal and immediately human. So considering that he set out this time to write an album with a full load of baggage, it's no surprise the Seattle band's fourth full-length is its most lyrically dense. A more surprising outcome, though, is how light they managed to keep their sound. "When the world, it tumbles and falls/Reach out your hand/A solitary man, that's all I know," sings Quirk on closer "When the World": It's a line that should sound as heavy as it reads, but it comes out more reassuring—triumphant even—than you could imagine.
Aside from Quirk's confident delivery and guitarist Derek Fudesco's happily clustered picking, the biggest reason for the album's upbeat mood is the addition of bassist Morgan Henderson, who has a storied history as a multi-instrumentalist with Blood Brothers, Past Lives, and Fleet Foxes. His reassuring bass lines buoy each of Naomi's melodies from the bottom up. When Quirk singes "I've got no sorrow" on "No Tomorrows," Henderson confirms the claim with a few bouncy notes in sequence.
"It's been since 2007 that I've played the electric bass in a band," he explains, "so by the time I was done touring with Past Lives and Fleet Foxes, I had really missed it. The bass is my first instrument and the one that I have the most instinct for. So by the time I started playing through the new Cave Singers songs, the time away made it so I didn't have to think of bass lines—I just played and my parts came out."
On her own, "Naomi" is not a real person. As Quirk explains: "On one level, it's just a pretty name that I like, and it sounds good—it's got, like, a good beat to it or something." In the end, though, she was also an unwitting scapegoat for the band's personal struggles. "That name also served as sort of a fictional muse for some of these nonfiction fiction stories," Quirk says. "It sounds like [the songs] are about one person, maybe, but they're actually an amalgam of lots of different people from over time."
This duality also characterizes the band's ethos. Each move they make builds toward a higher level of personal understanding, but in the end, they wouldn't do it if it didn't sound pretty—a novel concept, considering the members' edgier rock resumes. But though you could play up the novelty of a bunch of punks playing folk-rock (Fudesco was in heavy hitters Murder City Devils and Pretty Girls Make Graves; Quirk sung in gloom-rock outfit Hint Hint; and drummer Marty Lund drummed in Cobra High), Cave Singers feels like a necessary progression.
"You can't have one without the other," explains Quirk. "I had to do that [older] stuff to do this stuff. It's all in the same lineage of what's going to happen, like what grows off of your last experience. What do you learn from it, and what are you done with?"