Dan Sonenberg’s debut solo album arrives in the same year his full length opera, The Summer King, received its premiere, and a year after his indie rock band Lovers of Fiction released its debut EP, The Bear, to local acclaim in Portland, Maine. On Peaks Island Ferry, Sonenberg plays all instruments except for strings on one of the tracks (his arrangement), and the performances are solid throughout, with sporadic memorable moments on guitar, bass, drums, piano and Hammond organ. If Sonenberg’s voice is perhaps his weakest asset, he employs it to good effect on this neo-70s piano-laden cycle of torch and torched songs, projecting the crags and strains of genuine lived experience.
Peaks Island ferry is a breakup album of sorts, though on closer inspection it is clear something darker is afoot. In the opening track, the soulful lover’s complaint “Turn Me Over,” the narrator feels like a record only half played, a “cup off coffee,” undervalued, uncherished, and laments “but if you turned me over, you’d find I’m not like any other guy.” At the back end of the album, after considerable drama has unfolded, comes Resolution Time, a cynical New Year’s anthem proclaiming “every new year’s resolution does no good at all.” It is as if all the agonies that come in between have left the album’s narrator no wiser, primed to do it all over again in perpetuity. A piano outro based on Auld Lang Syne - a persistent reference in the song - feeds easily right back into the opening track, whose extended piano intro is even in the same key of A major. One imagines Sonenberg hoping his listener will just spin the thing on endless repeat, crying along with its auteur into a bottle of bourbon at the futility of it all.
The interior songs chart a clear arc, even if their narrative isn’t entirely transparent. Early on we hear of forbidden, catastrophic love in “Yoko Song,” a clear affair in “Every Message is Erased,” consuming jealousy in both “Bar Harbor” and “Target,” and ultimately confession and apology in “Happy Birthday” (“Happy birthday to the woman I’ve wronged, I’ve made such a mess at of it all”) and acceptance and transcendence in the title track, which is the album’s poppiest yet most profound number.
Sprinkled into the mix, somewhat surprisingly, are two lullabies - the Nillsonesque “Everybody’s Going to Sleep Now,” and the quasi chanson (complete with melodica solo) “Lullaby Waltz.” I am not sure if these interludes work in this context, though they do provide respite from the litany of despair represented by the album’s other tracks. Furthermore, they engage the album’s cover, rear, and label photos, which present Sonenberg’s triplet sons - one at a time - with him in desolate island landscapes, suggesting the presence of innocent witnesses to this disaster. The lullabies also serve to divide Peaks Island Ferry into three neat subsections, which we might call The Affair, the Aftermath, and Realization.
Musically the album wears some of its influences on its sleeve - there are distinct strains of Harry Nillson and Randy Newman, vocal arrangements harken to early Bowie, and the sparseness of the instrumentation - often just piano, bass and drums - along with the brutal confessional nature of the thing can’t help but invoke Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, which must have been a model. The production is fine, sometimes vocals are mixed too loud, and it reads as an upscale DYI effort (Sonenberg recorded and mixed himself, but brought in Steve Drown as a professional finisher and had the album professionally mastered).
Peaks Island Ferry is a thoroughgoing song cycle and a well conceived one at that. It also exists in a tradition of self-indulgent singer-songwriter confessionalism that may or may not have reached its apex in the early 70s, an era Sonenberg clearly holds dear. The lyrics are sharp and the songwriting sophisticated, but I hope that this artist can turn his gaze outward for his next effort.