Johnny Wilkins - Heartleaf (Album Review)


Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for espousing the view that change is central to existence. Phrases as "change is the only constant" can be attributed to him, and it's hard to argue with such a principled thought rooted in observation. This theme of change as an unavoidable consequence of reality is explored in "Heartleaf" by Austin-based sound artist Johnny Wilkins. Wilkins is a longtime musichead, having played in bands around Austin since the '90s. He also releases music under the name Many Pretty Blooms, who last year released Bow & Clatter, an album similarly about change. 

But where Bow & Clatter dealt with seasonal change, Heartleaf is about documenting moving from one home to another. Wilkins has created a place to store feelings of nostalgia, a sort of auditory storage box of a time and place. He does this literally, via field recordings of his family chatting or causing auditory anomalies with their everyday actions; doors closing, dishes rattling, people laughing. But these are scant and applied carefully, and the acoustic guitar is centre stage for this album. 

Wilkins stretches his strings for all their worth, looping rhythmic phrases with a modern classical profundity and finesse of execution. By investing such focus and care into maintaining the pieces' simplistic repetitions and more trance-like approach to melody, Wilkins has produced a confident musical statement that knows itself and knows how to say what it wants. 

Though each of the seven tracks relies on Wilkin's guitar manipulations and the somewhat chance-driven addition of soundbites, they each have their mood. The opening track, "Humming Bird", is bright and cheeky and lays out the album's lexicon of repeated phrases layered on each other in collage fashion. "Sebastian" is mysterious, with darker notions turning to joy through subtle key changes, "Filigree" is more pensive, and "Kitchen Table Candlelight" is elegantly lo-fi, with warped tape sounds sibilating around a simple acoustic guitar and more hard-to-pinpoint tones. Elsewhere, "Rain Make Rivers" is the most spiritual track, veering into new age with the addition of heavy rain sounds and its oriental-twinged melodic structures and gongs of reverb, though still not what anyone would classify as "spa" music. The closing track, "Spring Dream", ends things on a Saudade note, with the album's most complex heart-rendering melody, its spaciest sound, and, coming in at almost nine minutes, its heftiest moment.

Heartleaf is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of blissed-out, ultra-minimal, folktronica-cum-modern classical pieces for acoustic guitar(s). Even if the sense of urgency is spread unevenly across all tracks, such is almost necessary for an album that relies so heavily on its idiosyncratic way of operating. Wilkin's intention of documenting Heraclitan philosophy via musical structures comes off in pieces that seem to cling to safety and repetition but ultimately fade into the ether, leaving one with an appreciation of how music can act as a bookend to our epochs, dangling between the past and future in a drawn out, and in this case, beautiful present.