Oud Zeer by Jan Swerts
19 Nov 2021
There are albums inspired by heartbreak. Albums inspired by new love, by travel or even by the excitement of a new pair of shoes. And then there are albums inspired by graveyards. Most of these records have names like Decaying Fish Breath and depict a malnourished fetus on the front. You know the sort. Well Jan Swerts’ graveyard inspired Oud Zeer is not that sort. What exactly is it?
Belgian singer/songwriter Jan Swerts has built his latest piano based study around the epitaphs on graves in his local cemetery. You immediately buy in to this with the opening track Dezen Killen Grond. This is a beautifully tragic instrumental piano piece with very stripped back production and lots of empty space. However stunning this might be, Dezen Killen Grond is haunting and almost desolate which is not something I want to be experiencing for the whole album. Luckily the third track on the record opens with a buoyant piece of strings eventually accented by the occasional piano chord. This feels much more upbeat and is at the right point in the record or perhaps ever so slightly late. Here, various instruments drop in to say Hi throughout but always backed by the same layer of strings and piano. Before it fades out the piece has become full bodied and warm and exactly what the listener needed.
Any vocals delivered from this point on are much brighter than those featured earlier. The performance on Voor U Alleen has a calming, almost, dare I say it, uplifting tone and folky intonation. Uw Lied Was Kort En Broos features a female voice delivering a solitary repeated line at the close of the track which gives the listener a fading glimmer of something to grab hold of. Much like the selection of vocals the instrumentation on Oud Zeer is clever in its infrequency. Sometimes we are only given a single strum of a guitar or a hint at a string section coming and then dissipating before it actually arrives. The amount of sustain on the piano and the empty space does tend to give, in general, quite an ominous mood and I’m not sure if that is always intentional especially when that contrasts with the vocal performance. The album is over an hour of music and feels it. This might be down to the tempo throughout and the minimal instrumentation which is obviously a place where Swerts likes to sit.
Jan Swerts has created here an album oozing with sadness and stark beauty. The journey to discover this though is slow and hard going. I find individual tracks to be emotive masterpieces on their own but I struggle to commit to the entire record in one sitting. I respect Jan for his talent at making sure every note counts and painting aural landscapes with his music but I can't see myself putting this record back on in a hurry. Take a listen and as always let me know if you agree or not.