the trials of van occupanther
the minimum criteria for an album to make my list of favorites is that each and every song belongs on the album. there are no songs you want to skip, no songs you think could have been left off the album. after that, an album can earn a place on my favorites list for exploring a theme (like “one night stand” by hot chip, which explores love), defining a genre (such as the ambient industrial gem “dead cities” by the future sound of london), creating a unique sound (such as “pony express record” by shudder to think, which sounds like nothing else), or for being a sweet collection of songs (“document” by r.e.m. contains a perfect variety of tunes).
midlake’s 2006 release “the trials of van occupanther” is one of my favorite albums because not only does it check each of these boxes, the album tells a story. each song is well-written and the performances are tight without being robotic, loose without being sloppy. the mixing and mastering give space and levity while creating a solid wall of sound that reflect the fortitude of the album’s hero against the wide open spaces of the american west in the late 19th century. still, it’s the story that drives this album.
it all starts a piano riff and the song “roscoe,” where we meet roscoe van occupanther, born in 1891 on his family’s homestead. as the album progresses, roscoe and his wife go hunting for food (“bandits”) and return to find they’ve been robbed. they decide they have nothing left to lose and set out to find a new home for themselves. a short drum riff starts “van occupanther,” where roscoe is contemplating his relationship to others, praying “let me not be too consumed with this world.”
in the song “young bride” there is an acknowledgement of marital stress set against a violin riff that almost cries. the remainder of the album explores the following years and the trials that roscoe endures. the album ends in a snowy winter scene (“it covers the hillsides”) where he talks of the weariness of his adventures (“chasing after deer”) and ends with “you never arrived,” where the story concludes with the calm resignation of accepting that life doesn’t always work out like you hoped.
the story doesn’t end happily. it doesn’t end unhappily. it just ends, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. the songs on “the trials of van occupanther” are rich with longing and loss; bittersweet nostalgia; hard work to pass the time; finding your own independent spirit; holding on to the people in your life; the stress a marriage goes through; the challenge of finding your place in the world; the occasional sense that the world is moving on without you, even as you move yourself forward; the resignation that life has it’s trials; the hope for good outcomes; and the knowledge that reality is a mix of all of these things.
most importantly, the story of van occupanther reminds us that we all have our ups and downs. life is a mix of feelings and experiences. our endings are sometimes happy and sometimes not, but the beauty isn’t in things working out nicely, it’s in our trials.