Blood and Ink Records has a new member on their roster, Vagabonds, a single-member group from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their debut full-length album release, I Don’t Know What to Do Now, has certainly left a strong taste in the mouths of those taking in their contemporary pseudo-ambient sound. As an artist, Vagabonds — the moniker for songwriter Luke Dean — there is little to be said about a specific style that is yet a proprietary stamp for their sound. On I Dont Know What to Do Now, it is more about the journey of the story than the technical components on record that draws the interest. In fact, it could be said that Dean went so far as to make the album a purging of his own biography split into 11 installments.
With a voice that echoes the vulnerability of an early Andrew McMahon, Dean manages to keep a captive audience which is largely the appeal for the band. It’s unfortunate that the quality of the recording itself is poor, as it leaves a very primer-bare product. The sense that the songs were captured in a home studio does lend a positive vibe on some songs, but others (like “Deja Vu,” “Ambulance,” and especially “Nails”) suffer greatly as a result. With messy, gristled backing vocals that are neither clean nor unclean in character, it represents the grey line of the album, straddling the line between a professional work and an amateur release.
This is too bad, because there is a lingering presence of untapped potential that hovers above this work. The mesmerizing guitar picking or the shy presence of the horn that is appropriate in performance, volume, and arrangement stand out. “A Self Fulfilling Prophecy” has a nice sound with a texture absent elsewhere on the album, something that should have been mined for other tracks. It’s also the flagship song, opening the wound of a deep heartbreak which guides the album’s content following.
As with anything, if you are looking for it, there is good fiber and heart here. The only problem is that the sound quality makes it nearly impossible to get lost in unique elements like the spoken messages carefully laid into the songs, telling of encouragement to get help and practice self-care. The message of redemptive desire is existent and is a strong draw for the underdog, who seems likely to be the target demographic for Vagabonds on this debut record. And yet, you care barely hear it through the dramatic overlay.
“‘Ambulance,’ in particular, should come with a disclaimer of sorts, as it delves into the lowest point of depression and very descriptive suicidal ideation.”
What one could take away from IDKWTDN is that there is something truly irreplaceable about sharing a struggle with someone you have suffered in yourself. However, when that demon is as chaotic and strong as depression or suicide, care should be taken in the approach. Because these tough subjects happen to be the topic of conversation on the album, listeners should be aware that there are moments that could be very triggering. “Ambulance,” in particular, should come with a disclaimer of sorts, as it delves into the lowest point of depression and very descriptive suicidal ideation. As a victim of a familial suicide, the content in this song was angering with it’s almost sensational romanticizing in describing that mindset. It is, however, also a great opportunity for artists to take note that just because something is cathartic, doesn’t mean it’s healthy for their audience to consume. For vulnerable individuals, this song has high potential of exposure to secondary trauma.
As the landscape of the story got darker, I was holding out hope for a healthy resolution. Thankfully, Vagabonds delivered fully on that front. The ending track, “Teeth,” was so relieving and alive in its divergence. A sweet breath of worship and acknowledgment of Christ’s salvation, this song is what saves this album. You get the sense that if Dean had not embraced this faith, the ending would have been devastating in his life, not just the album. It’s the single ray of hope that shows that what we see from Vagabonds in the future may be of a similar or even greater quality. But as a debut release, Dean could stand for some refinement in musicianship and sound as he grows in his career as a songwriter.