[H.P. Johnson Presents; 2021]

Music and memory are inextricably linked. Chicago songwriter Daniel Knox knows this, and knows how to utlilise that relationship in order to extract the most affecting results. He’s not afraid of using cinematic flourishes to embolden his voyages into the mists of memory – as the title of his previous album Chasescene attests – but on his latest record, Won’t You Take Me With You, he’s not using that theatricality to puff himself up, but instead to break himself down into a mere vaporous spirit. Even though Knox is joined by a bevvy of collaborators who bulk out these regal songs with violin, cello, sax, timpani and more, thematically Won’t You Take Me With You is a very isolated and lonesome record.

Although, Won’t You Take Me With You begins with all the pomp and swagger that a song called “King of the Ball” would suggest. The song is a cabaret of cavorting arrogance that finds Knox bouncing along to his perky piano and announcing “I want to kill everyone close to me / I want to wreck everything then say that it’s mine,” and continues in this coarse (and very amusing) vein as he pronounces “I want to kiss you and scream and then spit in your eye.” This insouciance carries on into second track “Vinegar Hill”, where a silvery click track underlines gliding piano as it intertwines majestically with Nate Lepine’s elegant sax, providing the perfect backing for Knox’s one-man show as he demands “listen to me ramble / listen to me sing.” There is a sense that it’s all a facade though, and towards the end of “Vinegar Hill” the cracks start to show.

It’s fairly common that someone so externally ebullient is hiding plenty of demons, and Knox’s soon make themselves known as we move into Won’t You Take Me With You’s third track. “Fall Apart” immediately changes the timbre of the record by placing mournful piano chords and weeping cello under Knox’s wonderfully contemplative musings, where he follows a trail of memory deep into a realm of regret, realising that everything he’s built in his life was only made of “bricks and plastic and twine.” Here, the previous bombast curdles into something approaching self-pity, although there’s still some of the old arrogance (or perhaps desperation to cling to something) as he sings “And you may think you let me go / But there’s something you should know / I’m gonna show up in a dream / You’re gonna have a hard time letting go.”

Rather than being an outlier on the record, “Fall Apart” more or less sets the template for what’s to come in the remaining tracks. It’s as though Knox is stuck in a bog of dreariness from which he can’t extricate himself. But he sure as heck makes it sound beautiful and heartrending, with more than enough artistry to wind his way inside your own mind and bring you to a place of reckoning with long-buried memories. 

The elegiac “Fool In The Heart” rides on waves of piano that rise and fall with the grace of snow on a breeze, providing the perfect space for Knox to show off his rich baritone as he re-lives snatches of a lost love. He gets so adrift in the recesses of his mind of the mesmeric instrumentation that he has to jolt himself back – “now where was I? I think I remember how it goes / Something about “I’m disappearing and I can’t return”.” This idea of disappearing is one that continues to surface as Won’t You Take Me With You progresses, ultimately reaching a point of no return.

Later, on “Look At Me”, he changes the texture of the record by opting for atmospheric synths and jagged guitar squall to usher us into what is perhaps the most secret area of his mind, where he seems to be reaching the very end of his wick, bidding “goodbye / farewell / au revoir.” As the song disintegrates into guitar fuzz and forlorn pleas overlapping each other, it does truly feel like he’s sinking irrevocably into a deep depression – and there is no happy ending here.

The following “I Saw Someone Alone” again finds him fixating on someone he lost, but the memory conjured only deepens his isolation: “I heard a voice under my bed / Sounded like something you once said / So long, here’s to your health / Why don’t you just kill yourself?” he sings morosely, a sorrowful violin harmonising with his pain. After “Fool In The Heart”, where he dares himself “Crash your car into the side of the road you stupid old man / If you think that gets you where you’re going,” you have to wonder if he really is going to draw his life to a close. 

Well, the next track is “Lights Out” where it’s simply piano and voice, Knox sounding more sober and clearer of thought than he has – but his mind seems set as he confesses “my light is fading out” and later “there comes a time when you just stop believing.” Perhaps it’s overly dramatic to believe that he’s singing about ending his life, but considering the unwavering emotional slide from the perky beginning to this mournful point – handled graciously and captivatingly throughout – it’s hard not to come to this conclusion.

Final track “No Horizon” seems to give us the answer, as a symphonic cobweb scores a quick skip through an unsettling life, starting with his being taken away from home at age five, re-appearing in 1999 with no memory, and ultimately revealing “When my body was found / I was fifty years old.” As he repeats the titular phrase “No Horizon” with gusto befitting the climax of an album this funereal, it seems as though he’s a spirit, realising that death was no escape from his eternal loneliness, the weight of that understanding pouring down on him in waves of piano, violin, cello and timpani, before it cuts to silence.

Now, this review may have painted a bleak picture of Won’t You Take Me With You as a listening experience, which is absolutely not the case. Just like a Shakespeare tragedy, it may not always be pleasant or uplifting, but it’s certainly involving, beautiful and, ultimately, revelatory. There’s also the possibility that these are all individual songs with absolutely no over-arching narrative intended by Knox, and is purely something that has been dreamt up for this review. But, such is the elegance and detail of Knox’s songwriting and voice – not to mention the exquisite instrumentation – that one can’t help but get swept up in it and extrapolate from it. In that regard, Won’t You Take Me With You is an unmitigated triumph from an artist who continues to dazzle and enthrall with each release.

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