“Demeanour don’t matter when you’re digging up dirt in the moonlit meadow waiting for the wisdom to blossom.” So goes For The Wisdom To Blossom, the third track on ‘I Was Told To Keep An Eye Out’; Auckland singer/songwriter Ben Tolich’s latest album under his Mali Mali moniker. It’s a song that deals with the slow (and frequently painful) process of getting older and wiser. But it also describes the feeling of listening to this record. It’s difficult to understand on first listen, but the songs linger and, with time and many replays, start to blossom.
Part of this is the instrumentals. Arrangements are inventive and dynamic, but the songs never really feel ‘arranged’. They play out organically, with the instrumentation swimming in and out of focus with Tolich’s vocals. It’s difficult to pull off, but sounds effortless. Like most Mali Mali recordings, ‘I Was Told To Keep An Eye Out’ is self-produced – the list of instrumental contributors consists only of Alice Tolich adding cornet and harp on Harlequin Bay Rushes, and Alex Freer occasionally providing spare drums.
The home production gives a slight rawness to the recordings, and For The Wisdom To Blossom and Ajar don’t shy away from using that to heighten a feeling of intimacy. Tolich’s melodies expand on the style he was crafting over his last few records, flowing and developing to emphasise each line. They’re still catchy, and the instrumental countermelodies really highlight that, but they’re never static. It makes for riveting repeat listening and pulls you deeper into the songs, pushing you to decipher each lyric.
Listening to many non-mainstream records can feel like decoding a secret, but ‘I Was Told To Keep An Eye Out’ genuinely does feel like that. It’s one of the reasons that makes this album to intriguing – it invites interpretation but constantly resists it. The lyrics read like some relentless, vivid dream; moving from one place to the next, changing in scale and scope on a dime. But they’re completely lucid, clear and always in service of articulating the fluctuating emotions at the core of each song. It’s masterful writing, idiosyncratic and affecting. There’s a specificity that draws you in, but enough space that you can’t help but try to fill in the blanks. Soon enough, it becomes easy to hear yourself in the pauses.
Tolich is dealing with fluid, multifaceted emotions – the kind of feelings that change over time. And one of the beautiful parts of listening to this record is that, over time, it can feel like it changes with you. There’s something new every time you come back to it: a different line jumps out and re-contextualises a song you thought you had got, or you’ll notice a different sound or idea in the arrangement. It’s an album dense and abstract enough to facilitate that kind of experience, but it never feels overly concerned with trying to provide that.
Instead, the density feels in line with a lot of the emotions central to the record. Songs like Some Crime From Way Back When, Two Truths And A Lie and Ajar wrestle with time and acceptance in ways we all have to, at some point or another. They might not have answers (who does?), but as Tolich sings on Absconding, “Something tells me this dilemma won’t leave: Flows through centuries: It’s neither new, or unique.” As amorphous as the feelings he’s trying to articulate are, they’re common to many of us. And at a moment when it’s easy to feel isolated and alone, this record reaches out.