- Sten Bowen, Tender Pioneer
Sten Bowen belongs to a particular sect of pop-leaning Vermont home-recording artists who rarely, if ever, play live. The unofficial club of singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer types is vast and includes ethereal electronic producer Christopher Hawthorn, electric desert-folk singer-songwriter Osage Orange, indie-folk wanderer Glorious Leader, and new-wave revivalist Love and Japan, to name a few. Love and Japan's Edward Jahn, a high school classmate of Bowen's, plays bass on his new album, Tender Pioneer.
The last we heard from Bowen (at this publication, anyway) was 2018's The Farthest Sun, a sprawling, 25-track record with an eclectic sensibility that mostly camped out in a zone between piano-driven baroque-pop and psychedelic folk-rock. It's like a more polished version of Bowen's incredibly raw, undeniably intriguing 2016 effort, Four Living Creatures. His 2019 album, California Piano, flew right under my radar.
The Huntington-based artist's new record retains the weirdness and unpredictability of his previous releases while focusing all of his tendencies into a much tighter and more digestible form.
His production has evolved, too. The new album's sound is huge, rich and complex compared to the often-scrappy construction on his past albums. Bowen relentlessly adds layer upon layer of musical elements. Just when you think he's pushed a song to its compositional limit, he finds a way to expand it.
Conceptually, Bowen lingers on the religious themes that quietly drove Four Living Creatures. He mentions Jesus, angels, four horsemen, salvation and his soul. The people he sings about, including himself, appear on the water and on mountaintops and rise through the sky — all biblical touchstones. Though his lyrics are often poetic, ambiguous and probably tell stories with any number of meanings or interpretations, they're inlaid with unmistakable reverence and spirituality.
Bowen builds his songs to thrilling climaxes. "So Wild So Far Out," "I Wipe Them Away," "On the Rooftop on the Same Block" and "Everytime" reach surging pinnacles full of counterpoint and sonic maximalism.
"On the Rooftop" might be the catchiest track on the record. Its light, pop-rock motif snowballs into a grandiose, symphonic super-jam. About halfway through, Bowen introduces a looped hook with tight rhymes upon which he shellacs multiple countermelodies, crashing symbols, a wall of strings and space-age synth. Its hugeness cannot be overstated.
Bowen does quiet similarly well. Final song "I Found a World of Light" is a softly strummed lullaby. But even when Bowen's music simmers (as opposed to the rolling boil that propels much of the album), he adds slight expansions, such as the cooed background vocals and melancholy melodica that close the album.
Though we'll likely never see a fully realized live performance of Tender Pioneer, it's fun to imagine how those songs, fleshed out by a huge band or orchestra, would make listeners feel — that is, pretty damn incredible. But the record itself has the same effect.
Tender Pioneer is available to stream on all major platforms.