A couple years ago, I read Forrest Carter’s “Watch For Me On The Mountain.” It is a fictionalized “oral history” of the Apache nation and its fearless leader Geronimo. The people took a last dash for freedom and retreated into the mysterious hills and canyons of their ancient, tribal homes as a detachment of U.S. soldiers tried to track them down and destroy them. It’s a story of the Apache trying to hold onto to its history and way of life, all in the unforgiving beauty of the desert.
I kept thinking about that story as I listened to the new album “Born to Wake Up” from Arizona’s Brandon Decker, who goes by decker. when he performs. It’s the first album of brand new material from the musician since 2015’s “Patsy” (2017’s “Into The Red” from Royal Potato Family was a retrospective featuring two new songs), though it continues the tradition of Decker’s self-reflective broadcasts from the desert he started with 2009’s “Long Days.”
For one, the desert is both a setting and a character in “Watch For Me On The Mountain” and the same could be said of Decker and his music. He’s been based in the hills of Sedona, Arizona, and has been a witness and disciple to majestic indifference the land has in being both a healer and destroyer. His music is imbued with that razor-thin dichotomy and his folk-sensibilities can range from scorching rock screeds to starry-eyed lamentations.
In press for the record, Decker revealed the album came to fruition after many walks through the red hills and canyons of his home, absorbing the mystical powers of the land. His ties to the land can’t be denied and the musician chooses to highlight his inspirations, opening the record with the yips and hollers of coyotes and the vibrations of the desert night.
From there, he slowly steps out into that night with the hallowed march of “The Strawman,” a barren soundscape Decker takes harnesses with layered, echoed vocals and atmospheric strums of the guitar. “Those desert days will take my life, they won’t take my soul, they won’t take my pride,” cries Decker, the defiance in his voice not totally convincing when looking at the scope of what lays ahead of him.
There’s a foreboding tone in “The Strawman” that carries through the first half of the record. “Burnin’ Grass” moves along on a jangly hum of ’70s-styled guitar, with the musician pleading in paranoid terms for the people around him to “keep your eyes wide open, so shut your mouth for just one moment.” The ominous “The Garden” borrows lines and motifs from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” for a call-to-arms to defend environmental encroachment from greedy forces, the soft, mystical dance of the piano and acoustic guitars setting the tone and milky-way aura of the song.
The outlook of the album starts to shift toward the optimistic with the churning “The Matador,” as Decker states with invigorating passion, “What makes you think I would just lay down here and die?” “Awake” is an easy kumbaya sing-along from which the album gets its name, an attempt by Decker to get perspective on his life and frame positive forces in a new light.
He continues this course with the two final music offerings, “Mexico” and “The Saint.” The former is a sweet a capella tip-of-the-hat to his 6-year old son and the life he has lived so far, the latter a quiet, fitting tribute to his grandmother. Through all of his wanderings and turmoil in the desert, by the end of “Born To Wake Up,” he has found solace in the company of his family and the light they provide to him.
In “Watch For Me On The Mountain,” there’s a point where an elder Apache man is sharing his wisdom with a younger warrior. They are watching the long shadows of light pass over the desert as the sun sets behind the hills. The elder relays that the light during sunrise and sunset is physically the same, the sun is the same distance and angle to the Earth. Yet the light at sunrise is full of optimism for the day, while the light at sunset is mournful and dreadful of the night to come, hence the long shadows.
“Born to Wake Up” follows this path of light and the story of the album is framed as the light moving from a state of dread to one full of optimism. Decker has spent enough time in the desert to notice these cycles of life and his journey to understand them is what “Born to Wake Up” delivers.
— Garrett Bethmann
- ‘Born To Wake Up’
Label: Royal Potato Family
Release: Oct. 14, 2018
- ‘Born To Wake Up’