When I gave Thomas Meluch (aka Benoît Pioulard) a call to talk about his new album Hymnal, he was perched on a bluff outside of Portland watching the sunset with some friends. I could hear him clearly, but the conversation felt like a spoken word version of one of his songs. The wind carried soft voices around him, trees were shaking off the day, and the sounds of dusk lingered in the background as we spoke.
Benoît Pioulard's first project on kranky records, Précis (2006), was one of the initial LPs to enter my indie music library in the company of Sigur Rós and The Album Leaf. The whole project is mysterious: the French alias, the only-sometimes identifiable background sounds, and Meluch's rich vocals embedded in an onslaught of shimmering sound. Listening to a Benoît Pioulard album is like dreaming underwater, never needing to come up for air.
His newest soundtrack, Hymnal, is precisely that -- a score of his recent experiences in the United Kingdom and Europe. Meluch's music is often finished at home while elements are written and recorded in 'the field.' He always seeks out nature, so logically the best time to lay down recordings is in his Seattle-based home when the weather is poor and gloomy. I can just imagine Northern Europe and the UK providing the perfect catalyst for his work. Hymnal, Meluch says, was created in response to the religious monuments and cathedrals of Europe, "whereas most of my other albums were inspired by melancholy and sadness this one was more inspired by awe. I went to mass in a cathedral and I don't abide by Catholicism anymore, but hearing the meticulously well-honed choir perform in the space, it's ethereal. You step in and you step out having experienced something."
Photo by James Duthie.
Hymnal doesn't carry the same sadness found in previous projects such as Temper (2008) or Lasted (2010), but a has weight grounded in something more significant. I asked him if there were any moments of personal growth or introspection that took place between Hymnal and the previous album. "The major life events that drove that shift were the illnesses and passings of three of my grandparents, who I had known my whole life, in the last year and a half. No other close family members had passed away at that point in my life and in rapid succession they all departed us."
Hymnal takes on the burden of processing both awe and reverence with Meluch's soft but strong, M. Ward-like vocals on top of layered instrumentals and recordings, most poignantly in songs like "Litiya." The overall air of the song is exultant with a hint of sorrow. Written after his last visit to his grandfather on his mother's side, Meluch's intention with the song was "to process that into something positive to deal with that weight."
Hymnal is not without a few pop-based compositions. Of course when it comes to Benoît Pioulard I use the term 'pop' loosely, referring to upswing rather than full-blown choral hooks. "Hawkeye," "Reliquary," and "Margin" are responsible for rounding out the arc. The moments I savor most are the instrumental arrangements found on "Knell" and "Gospel." They have a patina to them. Meluch carefully removes thin layers of audio throughout the song, accentuating hidden histories in the recordings.
Benoît Pioulard's unique combination of singer/songwriter and ambient/electronica elicits a very emotive quality to the music. On the one hand we are given an extremely personal look into the musician's mind and heart. The crafting of the songs' atmospheres provides us with a complimentary view into his musical capabilities. Hymnal is where we encounter these things, but the album is rooted in a more conditional human experience of mourning the departed, whether a loved one or a moment in history.