In his series of albums called “The Family Tree,” Radical Face—the pseudonym used by Ben Cooper—proves that he is not only a songwriter and musician, but a poignant storyteller as well. The series consists of three interconnected albums: “The Roots,” “The Branches,” and the last and latest album, “The Leaves,” which was released on March 25. “The Family Tree” tells the story of The Northcotes, a 19th century family with supernatural and mystical abilities, using certain melodies and instruments as musical embodiments of specific family members. “The Branches” is a 40-minute album of 10 songs, and though it is not my favorite album in the series, it is every bit as evocative and moving as I had expected a Radical Face album to be.
I discovered Radical Face by hearing a number of his songs on TV; from there, I listened to many of his other albums, and was immediately intrigued by the concept of “The Family Tree.”
The series’s primary strengths lie with Cooper’s lyrics and melodies. The lyrics are poetic and enchanting, painting a vivid picture of a tale resembling a dark fairytale, and the instrumentation–specifically the guitar, piano and violin–layer over each other to create dreamlike melodies.
“The Leaves” starts off with “Secrets (Cellar Door),” a bewitching song about the speaker discovering that he’s not the only one who has magical powers. Taking place in the forest, the imagery is vivid and beautiful. The last stanza is especially touching: “Slipping on the pavement where we ran from the ghosts that you saw behind the cellar door / That’s the way that you showed me that I wasn’t quite alone / That you’d also touched the dead before.” The melody, shaped primarily by the repeating guitar riff, is uplifting and echoes the lyrics in its hopeful tone.
“Rivers in the Dust” takes a darker and more melancholy tone than the previous song. But it is no less poignant, describing two characters driving through a grimy path: “The highways are lined with graves / Like the fingernails of giants / Like blood pulled through a vein.” The complicated dynamic between the song’s two characters is hinted at in a subtle and imaginative way.
“Everything Costs” is somewhat similar to “Secrets (Cellar Door)” in its instrumentals, and the lyrics speak of resilience and defiance. “Midnight” has an ethereal and ghostly quality to it, with haunting vocals and a melancholy melody. This is fitting, as the lyrics seem to be about a vampire drinking blood from a diseased person. “The Ship in Port” is about those that are wandering and running, lost and drifting. The melody seems happy and hopeful, especially due to the buoyant and rhythmic violin, but the lyrics reveal an underlying darkness: “And as we danced among the ashes of our arms / We laughed it off / And then we burned our tiny world to find the ocean / Just beyond those paper walls.”
“Photograph” is mostly an instrumental piece, with a few vocal echoes in between. It has a dreamlike and timeless atmosphere, and the repeating sounds of birds chirping and insects in the background are evocative of a fairytale in a pathless wood. It reminds me a lot of Sigur Ros’s instrumental tracks. However, this song isn’t the most distinctive or memorable on the album.
“Third Family Portrait” is a touching song about the family’s journey as they experience tiring struggles, yet it ends on a happy note. The vocals have a rough and raw quality that adds to the track’s effect, and the violin is especially strong and uplifts the song in contrast with the other more melancholy instrumentals.
“The Road to Nowhere” exhibits some of the most powerful instrumentals on the album, from fast-paced violin, to rhythmic drums, to repeating piano notes. The lyrics are also some of the most interesting and moving in the album: “Often there’s a voice in my sleeping mind / The words inside my skull at night / But once I wake, I cannot read them / My bloody hands remain a question mark.”
“Old Gemini” has beautiful instrumentals, particularly the violin. Its instrumentals echo the album’s fairytale motif, and the content follows suit, describing a boy finding a buried diary from long ago in his garden, surrounded by fireflies. The final song, “Bad Blood,” is probably my least favorite in the album, along with “Photograph.” “Bad Blood” is slow, repetitive, and nothing in the melody felt particularly original or distinctive. However, the lyrics are as elegant as ever: “The moon was gone; from side the world was dark as nightmares / You took all my fears and, / You wrapped them in wonders / But there’s no magic inside the moon / It’s just a rock you can’t reach.”
“The Leaves” feels like a novel within an album, with beautiful language, complex characters and equally captivating instrumentals. Though it is strong as a stand-alone, it didn’t quite touch me the way Radical Face’s previous albums have. Though I love most of the songs, none of them quite reach the level of my all-time favorites from the artist. Despite this, it is definitely worth a listen, and ideal for fans of other indie folk artists like Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, with lyrics reminiscent of the poetry of Bright Eyes.