Tony Dekker’s Prayer of the Woods

By Ned Morgan.

In Tony Dekker’s universe, we’re all vulnerable to nature in one way or another. The Great Lake Swimmers frontman writes songs that occupy a region of unpredictable and humbling natural forces, rocky spines, exiles’ forests, changing colours, luminous veils, and deep forbidden lakes.

Dekker has never strayed very far from the hand-crafted template established on the self-titled Great Lake Swimmers debut album released 10 years ago: mostly downtempo voice-and-guitar songs with a focus on nature imagery, field-recorded for sonic vérité, with memorable, undulating melodies. His songcraft fits squarely into the Folk or Americana bracket but Dekker’s yearning amber-tinted alto voice is all his own and lends an aura that shuns easy labelling.

Although the first Great Lake Swimmers album was in fact Dekker solo (recorded in a Southern Ontario grain silo) he brought in musicians over the years until GLS gelled into a proper band with committed members and expansive arrangements and tempi that occasionally swung towards rock. The formula has proved durable, garnering Polaris Music Prize shortlists and Juno noms, critical nods the world over and extensive European and US tours and airplay. This month Dekker releases a solo album, Prayer of the Woods, on which he plays every instrument, and this time the palette is by turns spare (the sorrowful Final Song is just voice and guitar) and cunningly layered (on other songs Dekker overdubs accordion, pump organ, mandolin, mellotron and more).

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Photo by Tierney Dekker.
Dekker in the Glen Haffey Conservation Area north of Toronto and the sign that inspired the title track of his new solo album. Photo by Tierney Dekker.

His songs don’t often tackle issues head on (exceptions include the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster–referencing Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife). Though frequently dream-like and cryptic, his lyrics do retain clear hints of protest. Where many nature-conscious individuals today may find themselves discouraged in the face of climate chaos and unchallenged fossil-fuel supremacy, Dekker isn’t one to wallow. The title track from the last GLS album, New Wild Everywhere, has the audacity to proclaim an imminent re-greening of society.

Outside of his songs, Dekker publicizes ecological issues (protecting the Great Bear Rainforest, for instance) and supports organizations including Waterkeeper and Students on Ice. His songs and activism symbolize to me an emphasis of the personal over the political, a stance that resonates in an age when progressive-minded Canadians – particularly the young – see their government as an obstacle to change, and must turn to each other instead and find creative ways to protest. (As Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest, referring to the social justice and environmental movement of the last 15 years, “Its clout resides in its ideas, not in force.”)

The title-track of Prayer of the Woods features an anonymous poem about forest preserves which Dekker set to music. He casts a country-gospel–tinged glow over the slightly naive but nonetheless powerful lyrics.

Highlights of the album include the mandolin-driven, lyrically puzzling “Talking in Your Sleep”, with more riddles than a Sphinx on speed; the delicate “Hearing Voices”, where the image of birds leads us to universal truths; and the rousing road ditty “Somewhere Near Thunder Bay.”

Here’s an album preview:

 

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