One wonders what an artist like Nick Drake would have done in this age of social media, Youtube, and Bandcamp. Would he have found a wider audience for his music during his lifetime? Would that virtual word of mouth, that immediate and direct feedback from listeners, have provided enough of that missing recognition he seemed to need?
The introspective songs of River Crombie have a lot in common with Drake’s, as well as the early work of Drake’s contemporary John Martyn, yet without the darkness that so often tugged at the corners of their compositions. Crombie’s Time Beyond Me album is available to hear and purchase on Bandcamp. He also uses YouTube as an outlet for his self-produced original songs as well as the occasional cover, including a remarkable rendition of Martyn’s late 60’s little-known “Ballad of an Elder Woman”.
Listening to River Crombie’s music and watching his videos, you’d be forgiven if you thought he stepped through a time portal from 1971. The quiet intimacy and warm, assured guitar playing, however, allow the songs to transcend any connection to a specific musical period. There’s an air of mystery about Crombie as if he may just be here a short while before moving on to yet another time.
Time Beyond Me is an uncluttered album, featuring just voice and guitar. A thread of melancholy runs through, but it’s tinged with wonder and deep sense of contemplation. Themes of nature, the seasons, and travel frame these meditations on self-discovery. The folk stylings and mysticism of early Bruce Cockburn are akin, only Crombie’s lyrics are less concerned with the spiritual and more focused on the inner being and finding one’s place in the world. In “Way of Freedom”, the singer awakens from a dream of a cloud over a hill and in the simplicity of this dream realizes that a certain freedom can be found by being open to life “without a fear to own.” He explores a similar thought in “Cold Winter Morning”: “Learning to be calm while life takes you further /Along with everything you know.”
Many of his lyrics can be read as poetry:
And now a folding circle
Draws me in with signs
The ageing of the new world
Is the dancing of time
-from “Folding Circle”
I can hear the wind of a cold winter morning
Covering the ground undisturbed by the night
A blanket lying softly painted in a moment
Waiting for the day to rise
-from “Cold Winter Morning”
In many ways we’re lucky to live in this time where a wide range of music to hear is easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. For musicians, the Internet offers instant worldwide exposure for creativity and expression. Would an artist like River Crombie get signed to a record label if this was 1971? Perhaps, but that doesn’t guarantee that his music would find all the appreciative ears it could. The example of Nick Drake, signed to the large Island Records, shows this all too well. As it is, through today’s technology, Crombie’s music is readily available 24 hours a day to discover. While he may be far from a household name, I’d argue that his connection with his listeners is more direct and perhaps more rewarding. It’s something that Nick Drake might have benefited from quite a bit.