Departure & Farewell is the first album by Hem in nearly seven years. They entered the studio in 2007 to record a proper follow-up to Funnel Cloud, and almost didn't get out. According to an interview with chief songwriter Dan Messe, the initial sessions were supposed to be for a final release, and broke down during a tumultuous period for the band internally. Certain relationships were strained to the breaking point and a period of separation was necessary. Thankfully, time, willingness, forgiveness, and respect heal wounds. Departure & Farewell is vital, ambitious; Hem sound renewed (they aren't breaking up). The title track, "Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing," "Traveler's Song," and other tunes, make creative use of a chamber orchestra. Particularly effective are "Gently Down the Stream," with its woven electric and acoustic guitars and swooping strings, and the interplay of piano, harp, clarinet, guitars, and strings on "Tourniquet." Other cuts are much more sparse. The moving, hymn-like "The Seed" features the band with violinist Charles Burnham, while the gorgeous country-tinged "The Jack Pine" adds Bob Hoffnar's pedal steel. Sally Ellyson's signature warm, soothing, singing is present in the lullably-esque "Seven Angels" and the silvery "Bird Song," where glockenspiel, strings, percussion, and acoustic guitars offer an otherworldly waltz for her to carry the listener to another place. "Last Call" is an epilogue to drinking songs on earlier recordings such as "When I Was Drinking," "Lucky," and "Pacific Street." One of the two homemade choirs here underscore its late-night barroom feel. Another of these sends the record off on the bittersweet "So Long," a country gospel fare thee well steeped in the notion of love without regret, leaving open the possibility of return. No matter how expansive the arrangements, the production by Messe and guitarist Gary Maurer leaves plenty of room; they also -- wisely -- make Ellyson's voice the unwavering anchor of solace in each song, whether the emotion is longing or consolation. Hem's trademark senses of intimacy and elegance are never sacrificed. Departure & Farewell abundantly testifies to the band's creative vitality. Not only are these songs equal to anything they've presented before -- no mean feat for a record so long in the making -- their lyrics and melodies remain graceful, empathic, tender;all tolled they register abundance in having been tested by fire. Track for track, Departure & Farewell was well worth waiting for.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek