Alternative Pop music might not be what you think of when you think of Walden, and yet one of the more recent albums that reflects that work is Pines by Allison Sudol. Sudol is a musician turned film actor who released music under the moniker A Fine Frenzy, taken from the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sudol’s career is whimsical, enchanting, and a little bit otherworldly, just like her moniker’s provenance. In 2012 she released Pines along with a short film that told a story centered around the natural world. Which is why most of those songs are about trees, and riverbeds, instead of people. And I have to say… it’s an absolute jam session.
Thoreau writes about “the tonic of the wilderness” and how “one must resign themselves to the influence of the Earth,” and in Pines that influence is evident. The music itself is as inventive as it is evocative of nature. Gone are the synthesizers and loops an artist often feasts on in audio programs, as the majority of the album gives way to a minimalist vibe of drums, bells, soft strumming guitars, and piano. Possibly in an attempt to mimic nature, Sudol also uses layers of background noise to provide ambiance. “Pinesong” opens the album with sawing-like strings and woodwinds that makes the listener feel as if she is traveling a mountainside in a woodland area. In “Winds of Wander,” birds chirp, and bells flutter. It’s airy, whistling. “Sadseasong” is accompanied by the rocking sound of a boat, the tilt of waves crashing throughout. Under its melody and instrumentation is a rustling of foliage, footsteps through heavy snow, whale song, and vocal add-libbing, all of which approximate various encounters one might have in a forest.
Lyrically, too, Pines reflects a deep resonance with the natural world. The album’s opening track is full of woodland imagery as Sudol sings: “rolling hills are roaming through my veins/and open arms and all is full of smoke/The words you speak stir things in me/ that I thought were gone/their faint white heat/ melts centuries deep in frost.” In “Riversong” she takes on the mindset of a tree at odds with a forest, lamenting: “all my needles are gone so fast/not one left on a branch/I grew weaker/ as the river grew strong.” There are times when she’s takes on the role of an observer, like in the “The Sighting,” wherein “A lonesome figure gleamed/so tall and wild and evergreen/with roots that reached out for the sea/like dancers in the wind.” Though often changing her point of view, each song flows into the other. Rather than feeling disjointed, they fit together like pieces of a bigger picture, creating a landscape for the listener to visualize.
But what else is going on here? After all, this isn’t an album geared towards catchy hooks and club-ready singles. Whale-sounds and grass-themed songs aren’t going to get you to the top of the charts. And that’s clearly not the point. Sudol is using the album as a means of self-exploration. She purposely draws herself away from society and focuses on introspection, self-awareness, and longing. Much like how Thoreau writes in Walden: “All men want—not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.” Sudol takes this idea and turns it into female empowerment. She weaves strong, contemplative, moments into a focus on nature—with lyrics like: “The time has come for giving up/I have lost/I wanted once to become what I cannot,” and, “How does it feel to be so certain/without question of your purpose/of your position of your place of your home?” It’s clear there’s a sense of longing, but also a sense of inner turmoil she’s allowing exploring through the vehicle of nature.
As the narrative continues, there’s also resolve. The main refrain of “Avalanches”: “Don’t be scared of avalanches tucked up in my snowy branches/Oh, I will keep you safe.” “Now is the Start” and “It’s Alive” are powerhouses of quiet wistfulness that nod towards the future, to swimming rather than sinking. The last track, much like in Thoreau’s model, has Sudol ending with a sense of growth (both metaphorically and spiritually), rather than finality: “and grasses grow high in pursuit of the sky like those who’ve come before/Now and evermore/where you stand is where you belong/the place you’ve been looking for all along.”
Pines is unique because it tells the tale of a woman who takes a step back from modernity and goes looking for herself instead. In a little over sixty-eight minutes she uses these multiple dimensions of her work to provide a sense of what society often lacks: room for reflection. Her voice is both husky and thin, guiding and questioning, as she takes listeners on her journey of self-exploration. As per Thoreau, her focus lies not or love, or money, or fame, but on observing her own truth. Part of this album’s unique charm is the allure of quietude. One might easily add it to a playlist for a morning walk, but it also might even cause the listener to mediate on becoming a more open, honest, version of themselves. That being said, with the way the world is going, take caution: listening might just transform that walk into something spiritual, possibly enough to compel you to move into a log cabin and ditch suburbia for good.