Beginning with 2012's understated triumph Overgrown Path, songwriter/instrumentalist Chris Cohen struck out as a solo artist after years playing supportive roles in bands like Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Deerhoof, Cryptacize, and many others. The album felt easygoing and breezy, but instead of drifting lazily, Cohen's songs were full of unexpected twists in structure, arrangement, and production. The album was stormy and psychedelic, but always kindhearted. 2016's As If Apart followed a similar approach, and his third album, simply titled Chris Cohen, continues along the same lines, hiding deeper statements and vulnerable expressions in the layers of unassuming soft rock templates. While this album doesn't differ dramatically from Cohen's earlier solo work, the inspiration behind the songs holds an unexpected intensity. Cohen wrote the album during a time when his parents were divorcing after 53 years of marriage, his father coming out as gay and admitting to years of drug addiction he'd also hidden from his family. The entire album is devoted to Cohen unpacking these developments, often by returning to early memories and reflecting on where his family's complex emotional circumstances took him later in life.
It would be understandable if you missed the heaviness of the album's backstory on the first few spins. Cohen gets no angstier than the grainy Neil Young-styled guitar leads of "Twice in a Lifetime," and much of the album comes on as carefree and unassuming as the rest of his catalog. "What Can I Do?" is almost yacht rock, with sugary chords, light rhythms, and tropical melodies. "Edit Out," one of the song's hardest lyrical pills to swallow (directly addressing the distance he felt from his father while growing up), is musically light to an almost deceptive degree, burying any tension or confusion deep beneath sonic fare that's even friendlier than usual. Despite the sometimes unsettling juxtaposition of weighty themes and nonchalant tunes, Cohen's skill for detail-oriented production is stronger than ever. Many songs seem at first blush to be anchored in '70s FM radio tropes, but listening closer to "Sweet William" reveals no shortage of weirdness that would never fly in a Fleetwood Mac hit, with jagged key changes, unexpected tempo shifts, bubbling noises only audible on headphones, and the type of homespun-yet-alien production Cohen has been perfecting in his solo work. Midway through the album, the flow of things is broken up by the traditional English folk song "House Carpenter." The familiar wandering folk melody is soft and melancholy, and it's the only moment on the album when Cohen sounds unquestionably blue, his emotions bare against the minimal instrumentation. It's not the only song on the record he didn't write (Dear Nora's Katy Davidson and longtime collaborator Zach Phillips also contribute lyrics), but it's the clearest moment of pain and acceptance on an album full of these themes. Instead of drowning in dense reflections, these songs see Cohen carefully, patiently sorting them out, and creating another stellar work of art in the process.