In James Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants,” Lenehan waits for Corley to finish his rendezvous with a maid by eating a plate of peas at the “Refreshment Bar.” While staring into the empty gaze of the plate of peas, he ponders upon his aimless life. He will turn 31 in November and has yet to find a decent job. “Experience had embittered his heart against the world.” He has no one to turn to but his fellow gallant Lenehan.
In 2010, in support of his solo debut, Adam Stephens’tour van rolled several times during a snowstorm, leaving him with “a severely dislocated shoulder, 80-90% damage to [his] axillary nerve, the subscapular nerves, and other offshoots of the Brachial Plexus.” After taking a three-year break from his fellow gallant, drummer Tyson Vogel, Two Gallants returned to playing and touring together in 2011. The Bloom and the Blight, Two Gallants’ fourth album and first album in five years, finds the duo returning to where they left off with their last album, 2007’s Two Gallants, engaging with the question of loss and growth, and introducing a heavier and darker sonic palette that was only hinted at or found in a subdued form on their previous releases. There is no other way to look at The Bloom and the Blight but as a cathartic album.
Along with Joyce’s duo, the musical Two Gallants find themselves struggling at the hands of a harsh and irrational world that appears to be against them, an amoral, Spinozian world that inconsiderately shifts from bloom and blight. We human beings are thrown equally into existence as the ocean-battered rocks and the storm-rustled trees. Both Joyce’s Lenehan and Two Gallants’ Stephens seek to find a safe place to hide away from the chaos. Lenehan wants to “settle down in some snug corner and live happily if he could come across some good simple-minded girl with a little of the ready,” a change of pace from the depressing urban life of early 20th-century Dublin. Stephens idolizes an idyllic life when he sings on “Song of Songs” of his darling who “sets him right” when he falls over and carries him to bed when he’s sick, even though he sings on “Halcyon Days” of drowning from his lover’s farewell kiss. The Bloom and the Blight is an album that touches upon the highest highs and the lowest lows and attempts to reconcile the two without denying either. Two Gallants are only concerned with extremes and their effect on the individual — to push one’s self to the limits of experience that destroys the self. As Baudelaire expressed this sentiment, “O filthy grandeur! O sublime disgrace,” Two Gallants see the interconnectedness of “bloom” and “blight.”
The Bloom and the Blight’s project of affirming the highest highs and the lowest lows are reflected in the duo’s distinct shift in their sound. In a 2011 interview for The Silver Tongue, Stephens hesitantly calls the new sound that he and Vogel are working on as “grunge folk metal.” One could easily shrug this statement off as an innocuous plea to force down an image of “career development” (given the fact that Two Gallants’ past albums were, for the most part, aesthetically and thematically homogeneous), but such an act would be unwarranted. To some listeners of Two Gallants’ past albums, the mere mention of the inclusion of grunge and metal to their tried and true folk/blues sound may be off-putting and downright bizarre. The only song of their oeuvre that would come close to matching this new sound would be “16th St. Dozens” (from 2006’s What the Toll Tells), but even Stephens stated that this track is “more punk,” while the tracks on The Bloom and the Blight are “heavier.” There is no denying that The Bloom and the Blight is “heavier” than the duo’s past records. What is important to note is how this attempt to merge disparate aesthetic paradigms fits into The Bloom and the Blight’s concerns: life and death (finitude).
From “Halcyon Days” to “Winter’s Youth,” Two Gallants have produced a harsher and more abrasive sound than anything found in their past work, creating an album that better simulates their live sound. It is on tracks like these where Vogel’s chaotic drumming is given the atmosphere to properly be fleshed out. While there is no denying that the bridge of “My Love Won’t Wait” is straightforward “metal,” the duo’s main progression on this album is not found in something superficial as a “widening of a sonic palette,” but instead in their ability to unchain themselves from their previous releases’ constraints. The Bloom and the Blight unveils a more eclectic set of influences than previously heard. While the album is marked by a distinct shift to a harsher sound, there are still tracks that adhere to their previous albums, like “Broken Eyes” and “Sunday Souvenirs,” that could easily satiate fans of their previous work. Two Gallants’ always appeared, and will probably continue to appear, to be a band that sounds uncomfortable inside the studio. After The Bloom and the Blight, a retrospective listen of their previous albums will give the listener a sense of self-restraint on the duo’s part. It is only on this album that Two Gallants sound like they are pushing their own limits, a sound that was heard in their live shows but not on record. While this is a welcome inclusion to the Two Gallants world, a track like “Ride Away,” with its shouted chorus in mind, sounds too stilted to give the impression of anything resembling “authentic emotion.” This makes the album verge too close to becoming a patchwork that lacks cohesion and focus, and I doubt that Two Gallants are going for that. But maybe that is what they are attempting to achieve: a mix of raw passion and silent sincerity — life and death.
Without getting into the politics of “authenticity,” Two Gallants could appear to be too ahistorical (i.e., “out of it”) to some listeners and ultimately resistant to the ebbs and flows of our cultural milieu. At the heart of Two Gallants is a “naturalist” project. As Stephens stated in an interview for Modern Fix, “Be aware. I want kids, and my kids when I have some one day to realize that cell phones, Myspace, the internet, they didn’t always exist. Just develop an appreciation of, I guess, a more natural existence. I want people to be aware of what’s going on around them.” What is around them is “bloom” and “blight.” The biography of the artist/writer, as Blanchot put it, is that “he died; lived and died.” As much as Stephens desires for a naturalist/humanist authenticity found in the limits of the extremes of existence, The Bloom and the Blight achieves an equal subjectivity that Stephens searches for. Everything is ephemeral, including this album. Humans (everything) are aberrations that rise and disappear. As Stephens sings on “Sunday Souvenirs,” “Let me hold you once before you fade.” Maybe all we could ask for is a plate of peas, like Lenehan did, in order to be “less weary of his life, less vanquished in spirit.”